Indian adventure will continue for McHugh
By Frank Craig
Carl McHugh says he’s enjoyed his time in the Indian Super League even though a large chunk of his season was curtailed by injury.
The Leitirmacaward native joined ATK FC from Scottish Premier League side Motherwell last October. He settled well and banged in a real Goal of the Season contender on his debut against Kerela Blasters.
However, his campaign came to a frustrating and premature end in November when he damaged ligaments in his angle. He immediately travelled home to the Santry Sports Clinic to have surgery under Dr Johnny McKenna.
ATK – a former club of Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane – would go on to lift the championship title in his absence.
McHugh is now well through his rehab programme at this stage. And currently back home in Donegal, he intends to ramp up efforts in his bid to be ready for next season.
Of course there is just as much uncertainly in India as regards to Covid-19 and coronavirus as there is elsewhere.
But close to the coast and with miles of beach strand mostly to himself, he doesn’t envisage getting back up to speed fitness wise that much of a problem.
“Things got off to a really good start for me,” he said. “But the injury was a real blow. I’d played every game. It was a bad injury, worse than I’d thought at the time.
“I ruptured ligaments in both sides of my ankle. I got home as soon as possible and got the operation done. Dr McKenna is the same surgeon that performed Eoin Ban’s (Gallagher) operation.
“If I’m moving half as quickly as Eoin when I’m back I’ll be delighted. I was at the Mayo game when he got back playing. I was still home after the operation so I went over to MacCumhaill Park
“He looked like he’d never been away. I’m plugging away. The physios and medical team over there have been brilliant. They’re really happy with the progress.
“We’re due back for pre-season in July. So it gives me time while I’m home to keep pushing with the rehab. There’s no rush to get back for a game so I can really give it the time and the attention it needs over the next while.
“I’m just following all those instructions and it’s going well.”
The former Dungloe Town FC youth player admits that his new surroundings in south Asia have taken some getting used to.
Kolkata is the city he now calls home. It has a population of 4.5 million. There is the manic hustle and bustle and there are the smells, sights and sounds unique only to an Asian city going about its business.
It’s 24/7. The streets are alive and no distinction is made between night and day.
The 85,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium is where he now plies his footballing trade. Bursting at its seams, McHugh says the chance to play football in such a cauldron-like environment was a big incentive when he was deciding his next port of call after Scotland.
“It was the second half of the season at Motherwell. I hadn’t played that much. They had offered me another contract. So the decision I thought had to be made was do I stay there or go back down to England.
“I’m realistic, that wouldn’t have been the Premier League. I’d have been looking at League 1 or League 2. India and ATK came completely out of the blue. It was left of field.
“But when I began to weigh it up and look into the club, the league and so on, it started to really appeal to me. At my age, the stage of my career, I thought it was perfect timing.
“I’ve always wanted to play abroad. It seemed like an adventure and that’s the way I approached it. It’s mad. It’s so fast paced out there. But to be honest, we loved it from the very first moment. It’s completely different to anything I’ve ever experienced.
“The club have been so accommodating to both myself and my partner Orla. We get looked after really well.
“There are about eight other foreign players at the club. The manager and the coaching staff are all Spanish.
“I spoke to Stephen Pearson. He was at Motherwell and also played out there. John Johnston played with Middlesbrough and he was also in India. I got in contact with him and he only had good things to say as well.
“So I made a quick enough decision and I travelled out for pre-season at the end of August.”
McHugh captained Motherwell in both League and Scottish Cup final defeats to Celtic in 2018. At previous club Bradford, the player suffered a 5-0 thrashing by Swansea in the 2013 Football League Cup final and also came out on the wrong end of the 2016 League 2 play-off decider against Wimbledon.
His Wembley blues continued at Plymouth in 2016 when they missed out on promotion from League 2 following a 2-0 play-off loss to Wimbledon.
In between, he did help Bradford make the jump to League 2 back in 2013 when his side beat Northampton 3-0 in the play-off final. In total, that is six major cup finals spread across both England and Scotland.
McHugh of course crashed in a superb header past fellow Donegal man Shay Given for the Bantams in that memorable League Cup semi-final win over Aston Villa and it remains a real highlight.
Persistence is definitely one of his best attributes. Released by Reading as a teenager, his career appeared on the verge of being over before it had even begun and he returned home to see out 2011 playing for Dundalk.
But McHugh never lost faith that his chance would come, and that summer he caught the eye of then Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson while the club was on a pre-season tour of Ireland. He was offered a deal.
A subsequent move to Plymouth in 2014 also went well. Indeed, they were desperate to keep the former Republic of Ireland U21 international.
But once Motherwell came calling, the thought of lining up against the likes of Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers was too good an opportunity to turn down.
From a distance, it’d be easy to label McHugh a ‘journeyman’. It certainly has been a journey but it takes a very special kind of fortitude to dig in and simply refuse to take no for an answer.
He explains: “I’d three years in Scotland. I’d played in some big games. I’m really grateful to have done that. I’d some setbacks before getting to that and I’m sure whenever I do eventually look back I’ll appreciate all of it even more.
“Losing finals at the time, they all hurt. There is nothing worse. I’m 27 now and it’s a short career. So I’m really grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, good and bad.”
The conronavirus outbreak is currently playing havoc with sporting fixtures around the globe. With the Indian season over McHugh is now back home in Donegal.
He admits the uncertainty of the situation is a real concern. But with his team not due to meet up for pre-season until July, he will continue to work on his rehab behind closed doors.
“It’s been really worrying,” he said. “Everyone is in the same boat all over the world. Football is the least of anyone’s concerns at the moment.
“We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. Everyone is looking for information and hopefully we can contain the thing and we’ll see some progress soon. There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment. But we’ll just have to see how it all plays out.”
The 2020/21 season is what he’s aiming for and he says ATK have bigger and bolder aspirations for next term.
“Listen, injuries happen and they’re part of sport. But winning the league, it was massive for the club. They’ll continue to grow now and it’ll help push us on. They want to dominate going forward and this is a big step.
“There are places now in India for the Asian equivalents of the Europa and Champions League. We’ve that to look forward to. Football is definitely growing. The atmosphere at games is brilliant. India is so vast and the travelling to games is also an experience. Each city is so different.
“I’m just looking forward now to putting the injury behind me and giving it a good go again next season.”
Meanwhile, McHugh is backing his pal Shaun Kelly to be a hit with Finn Harps whenever the Killybegs man is fit to make his bow for the Ballybofey men.
McHugh’s partner Orla is a sister of the ex Limerick FC man and he says Ollie Horgan’s men are capable of defying the odds once again by staying the Premier Division.
“Yeah – it’s a great move for him. I’ll definitely be looking to get to a few games please god if this other thing (coronavirus) settles down.
“It’s a great move for his family to come back up home. Harps have done really well with the signings they’ve made. I keep an eye out for them just like I do with Donegal and the GAA.
“Getting the likes of Shaun and of course Barry McNamee is brilliant. Barry is one of the best creative midfielders in the league so that was a real coup.
“They continue to defy the odds and I’m sure they’ll be looking to do the exact same thing again this season.”
When Carl McHugh left Donegal for Reading as a sixteen-year-old, he was fulfilling the type of dream most of...