BY CHRIS MCNULTY
CARL McHugh was ‘buzzing’ on Tuesday night after the 19-year old Leitirmacaward man powered a header past Shay Given in the 88th minute of Bradford City’s League Cup semi-final first leg against Aston Villa.
McHugh sent the compact Valley Parade ground wild when he soared high to meet Gary Jones’ corner from the right-hand side, delivering a bullet header past the stunned Given.
McHugh’s goal has given little Bradford City a real chance of making it down Wembley Way for next month’s final. The second leg at Villa Park is still to come on January 22nd – but McHugh’s late strike has sent the Bantams’ supporters into dreamland.
Tuesday’s was their first semi-final since 1911 – 102 years ago – and their squad has been assembled by manager Phil Parkinson for a princely sum of £7,500, a fraction of the weekly wage of some of Paul Lambert’s Villa squad.
Having knocked out Arsenal in the quarter-finals after a penalty shoot-out at Valley Parade, Bradford were in as the underdog against a Premier League outfit, albeit a side severely struggling this season.
Nahki Wells fired past Given, restored to the Villa starting line-up for the last two games, in the 19th minute and Bradford took the game to Villa from there.
Thirteen minutes from time Rory McArdle capitalised on slack Villa defending when his header flashed past Given. Although Andreas Weimann scored for Villa with eight minutes left, McHugh stole the headlines and sent Valley Parade spiralling into bedlam with a heroic header, beating the record Republic of Ireland caps holder who hails from an hour away in Lifford.
“It’s unbelievable to think I scored score against Shay Given, with us coming from the same part of the world,” said a shell-shocked McHugh.
“I have watched him play in World Cups for Ireland and it’s a dream come true.”
The Leitir man managed to get himself a prized souvenir from the game, the biggest of his career by some distance.
He said: “I just shook Shay’s hand and asked him for his jersey. I didn’t want to be trying to speak to him after the game because he was obviously disappointed.
“But he was a top man. He left the shirt into our dressing room. He gave it to our kitman to pass onto me.
“I know there is still another leg to go, but scoring past Shay in a League Cup semi-final is something nobody can ever take away from me. It still feels surreal.”
McHugh signed for Reading as a 16-year old and spent some time on loan at Swindon Supermarine in the Southern League. In 2011, he spent the second half of the season on loan at League of Ireland side Dundalk. Lesser players might well have given up the ghost on making it cross-channel – but not McHugh.
Injury curtailed some of his progress at Reading, but last summer he attended a trial with Bradford in Ireland – and won a two-year contract with the West Yorkshire side.
He said: “I have always had confidence in my ability and you have to have that and never give up because I have had a few tough times over the years.
“You just have to think that when you get that chance you’re good enough to take it – and thankfully I’ve done well when I’ve had the chance.”
Weimann’s goal gave Villa a chance – but McHugh was determined to give his side the best possible chance heading into leg two. Having been a little irked at his role in the Villa goal, McHugh more than made ammends at the other end with what could well become one of the most famous headers in Bradford City’s history.
McHugh said: “The manager said beforehand he would have taken a draw and I was saying something similar. We just wanted the tie to be still alive for when we went to Villa Park.
“The worst thing would have been going three 3-0 or 4-0 down because realistically you would have no chance of getting through.
“The tie is very much alive. We’ve something to hang onto and defend even if it is going to be difficult.
“I was disappointed with the goal that they got. If it had finished that way, I would have been annoyed. If you’d offered me a 2-1 win beforehand I would have taken it because of the way the game had gone it would have been a bit of a downer having been 2-0 up.
“I was determined to get that two-goal lead back. I don’t know how but, somehow, I got my head on the end of the cross and I scored. I’m 5ft 11in so I’m not the tallest for a centre-half but I’ve always got my fair share of goals. That was my third of the season.
“I was determined to make sure we got the two-goal lead. I didn’t care how I got my head on it. I was delighted.”
On Tuesday, McHugh faced one of the toughest opponents in his short career, in Villa striker Christian Benteke, who was very involved through the game.
McHugh said: “He’s a very good player. He’s massive and it’s hard to compete with him physically so you have to try to be clever with him.
“You have to try to nick in ahead of him to get the ball or else drop off.
“I think he might be better in the opposition box than his own though because I did quite well against him in there!
“For the first goal, it was me who won the header to keep the ball alive. Then I had a header which went over the bar and the goal itself.”
Bradford are no slouches though, as they showed with a determined display and a performance that had all the hallmarks of a Cup classic. Cup romance is alive and well again around the foothills of the Pennines.
McHugh said: “Our attacking players like Nahki Wells, Zavon Hines and James Hanson did really well. Zavon gave their left-back a hard time and James was a real presence up front.
Villa are quite an attacking team which meant the game was pretty open. We were able to exploit that and we created quite a few chances.
“We all aspire to play at a higher level and this was a good chance to show we were capable of doing it.
The return leg in Villa Park will be a nervous one for the locals. Paul Lambert’s team is in real relegation danger and Given and co will be aiming to stir a repeat of the Villa team of 1993/94, which lost a semi-final first leg 3-1 to Tranmere Rovers, before taking the tie to penalties and advancing to actually win the competition.
However, that Villa team had the likes of Dean Saunders, Steve Staunton, Paul McGrath and Dalian Atkinson. The current team seems somewhat jisjointed, but McHugh insists Bradford aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
He said: “We were all buzzing after it. I think a two-goal lead just gives us a little more breathing space and more to defend even if we’re under no illusions about the size of the task facing us. Even though they are two goals down I still imagine they’d be favourites to get through.
“They were able to bring Darren Bent off the bench which just shows the attacking quality that they have. We’re not getting carried away with ourselves.
“I’m not even thinking about Wembley. You can come back in two weeks and ask me about Wembley – we’ll see where we are then.
“We still have to go to the ground of a top Premiership club and it’s going to be a massive test.”
Well known sportsperson Shay Given from Lifford, has been named the Donegal Person of the Year for 2017....