IF Carl McHugh can ever top his first season as a professional while he is at Home Park, there are going to be a lot of happy Pilgrims – not least of all the young Irishman himself.
Carl, 21, has signed for Argyle on a two-year deal after two seasons at Bradford City, a club he joined as a teenager from Reading and with which he enjoyed league and cup success in his debut campaign.
The County Donegal-born defender’s first Bradford appearance – his professional debut – came in a Capital One Cup tie against Watford in August 2012. Neither he nor anyone associated with the Sky Bet League 2 side at the time could have known then that Bradford would progress all the way to the final of the competition.
Carl played in four of the Bantams’ next five matches on their way Wembley as City knocked out Premier league sides Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa. He scored a vital goal in the first leg of the semi-final against Villa that cemented his place in Bradford’s side for the final, which they lost to Swansea City in front of a capacity crowd that included more than 100 family and friends from his native Lettermacaward – “a one-horse town without the horse,” as he described it to commentator Martin Tyler.
Although he did not make his league debut until late October, Carl racked up an impressive 28 appearances in his first season as Bradford came out of the League 2 pack to win promotion with a 3-0 play-off final victory over Northampton Town. He was also named the Football League Young Player of the Month for January.
Carl, who has represented Ireland at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels, started out as a scholar at Reading as a 16-year-old, and progressed to a one-year professional deal.
Following loan spells back in his home country at Airtricity League Dundalk and with Swindon Supermarine in the Southern League Premier Division, he moved to Valley Parade after a successful trial to which he was invited by Bradford manager Phil Parkinson during City’s summer tour of Ireland.
It was a lifeline he grasped with a resilience born of adversity. His loan at Dundalk left him with stomach problems that sidelined him for two months and a subsequent loan at Barnet ended before it began when he tore a cartilage and meniscus in his knee during training, hastening his release from Reading.
His opening-season impact at Bradford earned him a further one-year deal. After limited opportunities in the first half of the League 1 campaign, he forced himself into Phil Parkinson’s side after Christmas and went on to make a total of 16 appearances for the Bantams.
He has also played Gaelic football for Donegal side Na Rossa and acknowledges the debt he owes the game for toughening him up.
“It was my main sport until I was about 11 or 12,” he once told the Daily Mail. “Gaelic is my first love really, and I used to dream of playing in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park, but, if I had to choose, I think I would go for a cup final at Wembley. That would just have the edge.”
Carl’s fans include former Ireland and Celtic goalkeeper Packie Bonner.
“What he has, which I like, is a determination,” said Bonner, in an interview with local paper the Donegal Democrat. “He has that Donegal determination. You don’t want to give up. You want to give it 120% when you have the opportunity. And then it’s up to someone to give you that opportunity.”
Packie’s fellow Irish international John Sheridan has just given Carl his latest chance.