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Carl McHugh growing up fast in young Bradford City defence
City’s defensive dilemmas have been well-documented since Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies were wiped from the scene in the same game.
The back four on Saturday was unrecognisable from the one that has formed such a solid unit this season.
With an average age of just over 21, three of that rearguard had totalled only 20 senior starts between them.
With the usual suspects on the sidelines, the door has suddenly swung open for those unsung youngsters.
Carl McHugh, at 19, is the baby of the bunch but he is growing up fast as a professional. The Exeter game was his sixth start and followed hot on the heels of his first goal to take the Northampton FA Cup clash to penalties.
He said: “I think I’ve learned more in the games here than in a whole season playing in the reserves at Reading. It’s a huge learning curve for me.
“I still have a lot to improve on and I know there are times when I show a bit of inexperience. Sometimes I’m a bit too eager and need to relax more but I’m just delighted to get any time on the pitch I can.
“It’s been crazy with the injuries and I don’t know why it’s happened. Maybe it is the price of success and doing so well in the cups.
“At the same time, it’s hard to beat that never-say-die attitude we’ve got within the club. We’re going to games thinking that we’ll take it down to the last minute even if we are getting beaten.”
McHugh has switched between left back and centre half and returned to full-back duties in James Meredith’s absence. But he had a familiar face playing at his shoulder – McHugh and Sunderland loanee John Egan were team-mates for the Republic of Ireland under-19s.
“It’s good to have another Irish lad round the place and I know John from playing together before,” said McHugh.
“He’s a year older than me but I played up one age so I got called up for a few games in his team.
“And it’s nice to have somebody who understands me! Saying that, the Cork accent’s a bit different to mine, coming from the top end of the country.”
Phil Parkinson has promised to give the younger end of the squad a chance. While injuries have forced his hand, the City chief has been good to his word in blooding the likes of McHugh, Scott Brown and Adam Baker.
McHugh said: “The manager and coaching staff have been brilliant with all the younger lads.
“You know if you train well all week, there’s always that incentive. Sometimes you could be in a squad of 30 players and train for weeks without getting anywhere near.
“I’ve played seven games and three of them have gone to shoot-outs. It’s amazing!
“It couldn’t have got much later than the Northampton game last week but we just kept going. Even when we were down to ten men, we were stretched and tired but there was always that belief we could get something.”
McHugh’s late header ensured another winning penalty climax but he is still not tempted to put his name forward from 12 yards.
“I don’t think I’d had the best of games but it was great to get a goal that meant something,” he said.
“I’ve never been so confident afterwards that the lads would do the business from the spot, as we’ve done this year. I’m happy to leave it to them.”