When Carl McHugh was a young boy, he was more interested in becoming a Power Ranger than a professional footballer!
“He’ll hate me for saying this,” says his mum, Mary McHugh. “I remember Gerry said to me one day, ‘what is wrong with that fella. You’d think he’d go out and kick a ball’!”
Well, he needn’t have worried. Carl McHugh may not have impressed his dad, or even his first coach, Pat Ward, but he has made up for lost time and talking to his parents, Gerry and Mary, last weekend, two more prouder parents you could not meet.
All the plans are in place for the exodus of the entire family and a group of around 114 from the general Leitirmacaward area for Wembley, London, this weekend when Carl McHugh and Bradford City take on Swansea City in the final of the Capital One League Cup final on Sunday.
After a slow start, Carl’s early career took off with Na Rossa and Dungloe Town when he was about eight or nine. “He’s a big strong boy and he was always a big strong lad. He’s just very dedicated to it all from a very young age he was very careful about his diet. From a very young age, he wouldn’t eat rubbish, and you know he was interested in getting on but we never would have thought that he would have progressed to where we are now,” says his mum, Mary.
“He was in the Donegal Schoolboys team with Eunan Brolly and Paddy Foy. It progressed on from that. With Eunan, he won the All-Ireland twice with Carl captain of the team and he was very much at home with himself.”
Then playing in the U-14 Kennedy Cup, Carl was the target for a large number of cross-channel clubs with trials at Glasgow Celtic, Ipswich, Norwich, Southampton, Liverpool and Middlesbrough.
“He was actually over and back from Ipswich for a while. They did actually offer him a contract, before he went to Reading, but we just felt that Reading had a good Irish connection. It was very hard for a boy from the country to move away. He was only just sixteen. There were no relations in the area. We had five children and we were a big, happy, close family,” said Mary, who said that they felt that with Eamon Dolan at Reading that it was the best choice. “They were very fair and they were very good and then the Irish connection that Reading had; they were very good to him, players like Noel Hunt and Shane Long and them guys, you know they were very good to him,” said Mary. “He started off cleaning Shane Long’s boots.”
Before going to Reading, Carl completed his Junior Cert. “He did unbelievably well in the Junior Cert, he really did. For all the school he had missed because he had to go to a lot of trials and then he was in the Irish set-up and he had a lot of trips away. He played in the Under-15 team, that was his first, and he played against Northern Ireland and he was only fourteen at that stage so he did miss a lot of school but he did play school football for the Comprehensive in Glenties. He did really well and we kind of new by the time he was doing his Junior Cert, he was going somewhere; that the Leaving Cert wasn’t really going to happen,” said Mary, who said Carl continued his education at Reading and has the equivalent of three A-Levels which would qualify him to enter University if he so wished.
Mary and Gerry outlined how Carl progressed at Reading, firstly in the youth academy. “Eamon Dolan was a great help to him, guiding him and giving him advice,” said Mary, who said they understood the situation when Carl was released by the club.
“When Carl was released, there was eleven released; he was the only that got a club. That is how difficult it is and there are probably better footballers than him that are just working in shops.
“People don’t understand when you go to England at fifteen or sixteen; (they think) that’s you’ve made and it’s the furthest thing from it. People really don’t understand how difficult it is and there’s the leaving home, home sickness, a different environment and just a totally different way of life and people think once you’re in, you’re made but you’re not,” said Mary.
While at Reading Carl went on loan to Barnet and Dundalk. When at Barnet he ruptured his meniscus which led to an operation, but he recovered and did well on loan at Dundalk. But then last summer he was released by Reading and found himself back home in Leitirmacaward where he played a few games for Na Rossa before the chance came to join Bradford.
“He went for a trial. Bradford were on a tour in Wexford and it was actually Eamon Dolan and Steve Shorey from Reading that kind of arranged the thing. So even though they released him they didn’t cut him loose and let him flounder. Even all through this cup run, Eamon Dolan and Steve Shorey have been texting him wishing him well. So even though they did release him Carl wouldn’t have a bad word and neither would we, to say about Reading,” said Mary.
The Bradford story was slow to start for Carl, but then in the Capital One Cup, the fairytale story took off with wins over Watford and Wigan and then Arsenal, by which stage the McHughs began to make what have now become regular cross-channel trips.
“We thought we’d go because we thought this was probably going to be the end of it and we went to Arsenal and that was just amazing. Carl didn’t get home for Christmas, so we went over to him with the kids and we loaded up the car and took the ferry and we spent Christmas in our eldest daughter’s in Liverpool. We stayed in her apartment and made Christmas dinner and that was grand,” said Mary.
“Then the Aston Villa game, the one we didn’t go to, he scored and we weren’t there. We were out in the house because Gerry gets very nervous so we watched it in the house and that was just unbelievable,” said Mary.
Carl got the third goal to secure a 3-1 first leg win and the opposing goalkeeper was one of his heroes, Shay Given.
Then after securing the aggregate victory in the second leg, all the planning has been for Sunday next and the Capital One Cup final.
“At least 114 people from the parish are heading over now. There’s a lot of family and everybody is digging deep and you know it’s expensive; it’s an expensive weekend but people have just been amazing, with good wishes,” said Mary.
In what has been a real Roy of the Rovers type story, Mary says her son has mentioned that in a number of interviews: “He was really into these things about boys playing this magical game and being taken to Wembley and he even wrote books when he was at school. It’s all true but it’s kind of like something you would read in a book. I was saying to him, you’ve the makings of a book already and you’re only 20. He was just 20 on the fifth of February and he played his first Under-21 for Ireland the next day,” said a very proud mum
“He’s just a lovely fella and we’re proud of the man he is as much as the footballer he is. I’ve always said that, you know,” said Mary.
The entire family of Nicole, Adam, Shannon, Aidan and his parents will be there cheering Carl on in Wembley on Sunday.
A win for Bradford against Swansea could only be bettered by a summer transfer to Gerry’s ‘club’ Liverpool!