Carl McHugh’s rise from teenage wannabe to defensive lynchpin has been one of the stories of City’s remarkable season.
The youngster has enjoyed a debut campaign to remember in senior football, capped with that thumping header in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg which has given the underdogs a genuine chance at Villa Park tomorrow night.
McHugh only earned a contract on the eve of the campaign after catching the eye during the summer while on trial.
But he was thrown in the deep end after the double injury blow to Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies at Burton in October.
The 19-year-old has since come on leaps and bounds – but that comes as no shock to regular central defensive team-mate Rory McArdle.
He has been impressed with the Irishman since day one.
It was a big ask to come in for the likes of Olly and Dava but I was always confident that Carl could handle it from what I’d seen of him prior to thatRory McArdle
McArdle said: “I remember when Carl came over to Ireland. He trained with us and you could see he was a good player from the start.
“It must have been very difficult for him coming into the squad on trial because he didn’t know anyone there. But he fitted in straight away.
“He’s a nice lad as well, which I think always helps. He’s not got any arrogance about him, he’s so down to earth and prepared to work hard and you can’t ask for more than that.”
Phil Parkinson splashed out around £30,000 last week to bring in experienced Michael Nelson from Kilmarnock. With Davies still a while off being ready, the City chief felt that another old head was required. But he has been full of praise for the way the younger centre halves have stepped into the breach.
Loanees Curtis Good and Tom Naylor have played their part but McHugh has shouldered the bulk of the burden with 17 appearances.
McArdle said: “Nobody could have predicted what would happen at that Burton game and the way the team finished that day.
“It was a big ask to come in for the likes of Olly and Dava but I was always confident that Carl could handle it from what I’d seen of him prior to that.
“His reading of the game is really good and he’s got to realise he’s got a lot of strengths.
“If he has one problem, it’s that sometimes he falls out with himself a little bit too easy if he feels he’s made a mistake.
“In a way it’s a good thing because it shows he’s disappointed in himself if he doesn’t win a header. But he’s not going to win every single one, nobody does.”
And McArdle has no need to nurse his younger partner through games because McHugh has learned so fast.
“It makes my job easier if I talk to Carl because I know he’s in the right position.
“He’s also talking a lot more now than when he first came. That comes with confidence and getting to know the lads.
“But we speak all the time. Every day we’ll have a conversation, not just about the next game but anything.
“He’s growing as a player and I really predict big things from him in the future.”