FROM CHRIS MCNULTY AT WEMBLEY STADIUM
ST BRIDGET’S Church in Leitir Mhic a’ Bhaird it wasn’t, but a little church in Wembley was good enough for Mary McHugh early yesterday afternoon.
A native of Glenfin, she is proud of her faith and it’s something she has passed onto her son, Carl, the 20-year old Bradford City defender.
Before going into Wembley Stadium yesterday, Mary popped into the quiet Church to light some candles.
A priest came down and saw the Bradford colours she was draped in.
“Are you praying that God is a Bradford supporter?” he wondered.
Mary’s response was swift: “I’m just praying that my son gets through this day.”
Carl has a saying that he recounts quite often: ‘If you’re not here for my struggle, you’ll not be here for my victory.’ With that, around 120 people exited south-west Donegal for yesterday’s big game, joining in to form a 31,852-strong Bradford crowd.
Just after the teams emerged, a huge green and gold flag was unfurled. There was no doubting its origins: “Stuck in the middle with McHugh,” it proclaimed.
Little corners of Tir Chonaill popped up all over the ground, with Donegal’s All-Ireland winning wing-back Anthony Thompson – who goes out with Carl’s sister Nicole – among the traveling hoards.
“It was great for them to get over for it. I’m sure they enjoyed the day,” said Carl after his side’s harrowing defeat to Swansea.
“It’s massive for them and it’s massive for me too to play in a game like this.
“It’ll stick with me forever and I have learned so much from playing against Premiership teams.
“The experience has to help me for the rest of my career.”
The experience of playing at Wembley, to borrow that tiresome cliche, is every schoolboy’s dream – and Carl McHugh was no different.
His mother said: “He dreamt it himself as a young boy and he wrote wee stories about it at school. We never could have seen this coming though.”
The scale of the task facing Bradford City yesterday was evident by the fact that they were bidding to become the only club in European football history – and only the second in world football – to win a national cup competition from the fourth tier.
Indeed, only Rochdale in 1962 and the French side Calais had managed to reach Cup finals while playing in the fourth tier of a European League up to now.
That Bradford City are even alive as a club now could be considered a triumph in itself.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s they were playing in the dizzy heights of the Premier League.
Twelve years ago, they almost hit the floor when they were some £36m in debt.
The £40,000-a-week paid in wages to the likes of Dan Petrescu, Stan Collymore and Benito Carbone during their top flight days was crippling and is quite the contrast to the class of now. Phil Parkinson’s side has been assembled for a princely total of a £7,500 payment for James Hanson to the non-League club Guiseley, against whom they had to agree to a friendly.
The average wage now is in the £700-£800 bracket and yet they reached the threshold of having European football at Valley Parade.
Yet it was in Bradford’s cloud that Carl McHugh found his own silver lining.
“Last summer, he had no club and Bradford took a chance on him,” Mary said.
“Two players got injured on the same day and Phil Parkinson gave him a chance. He did take a chance on him, but he repaid the faith Phil showed in him.”
He’d played League of Ireland with Dundalk in 2011 having been released by Reading. The time without a club was tough on a player whose potential as a youngster was always evident to those around him.
His mother agreed: “It was tough on him, very hard when he had no club.
“He had been doing well when he was at Reading and won the Apprentice of the Year at one stage during his time over there as a scholar.
“When Reading won promotion, it got harder for him. Carl always wanted to be playing.
“It’s all very well being at a big club, but sitting on the bench isn’t much good to anybody.
“He wanted to play and that’s why the move to Bradford has been so good for him. He has now got experience of men’s football.”
And what an experience it’s been. Victories over Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa were gigantic steps for Bradford, significant milestones in a season that will live long in their memory.
Even yesterday following a five-nil defeat, they could walk tall. Swansea City, the victors, showed their own class by affording Phil Parkinson’s minnows a guard of honour after they’d collected their medals.
“Playing at Wembley was brilliant,” McHugh said an hour after the game.
“Playing in front of a crowd like that in a cup final at Wembley is something no-one can take away from us.
I wanted to win the cup as much as anyone, but we can’t dwell too long because we have a big game on Wednesday night (in the League against Dagenham) and we have to prepare well for that and try to finish the season strongly.
“Everyone just tried to enjoy it. You’re playing against top players and they showed their quality in stages.”
The McHughs have attended several of the Cup games, but missed the game against Villa at Valley Parade.
Mary takes up the story: “Each one we went to we always thought: ‘This one is definitely going to be the last’.
“We watched the first leg against Villa at home in Leitir – and, of course, that would be the game that he’d score in!”
Carl’s goal, the third in a 3-1 win, would prove the crucial score over the two legs. “It was such a brave header…a moment to savour,” said Parkinson yesterday.
Carl admitted after the game that he was taken aback by the Bantams’ supporters, who were vociferous from they came ’til they went.
The centre-back said: “With ten minutes to go I had a look around and I couldn’t believe they were still cheering us on so much.
“On the day it just didn’t happen for us. They were probably better than the other three. They took their chances and we weren’t good enough on the day. You have to get on with it, though, because things like this happen in football.”
Little Leitir has been a hive of activity over the last few weeks since Bradford booked their Wembley date.
RTE were down during the week and other media have been calling regularly. Carl famously said that Leitir was ‘a one-horse town without the horse’ – and it was certainly new to the locals.
But the McHughs have been heartened by the support they’ve received.
“It’s unbelievable when you see the number of people who have come here,” said Mary.
“It has been just brilliant.
“There is a recession on and money is very short, but for all of those people to be coming and genuinely wishing him well has been unbelievable – as have the good luck messages he’s been getting.
“Leitir is a small wee place and everybody helps everybody. They’re just so happy for him.
“They know the whole thing: the ups and the downs, the goods and the bads.”
It’s back his own adage about being there for the struggle and the victory. A 5-0 defeat at Wembley is a struggle alright, but in context – for player and team – there was no doubting the mood which prevailed.
As Mary McHugh put it: “This is the victory day – regardless of the result.”
When Carl McHugh left Donegal for Reading as a sixteen-year-old, he was fulfilling the type of dream most of...