ON SUNDAY morning, Carl McHugh will wake up with the same appreciation which has greeted him for the best part of a year. A year at one point he thought wouldn’t arrive.

Sitting in his team hotel room just hours before he leads Motherwell out in the Betfred Cup final, McHugh will have plenty thoughts occupying his mind. Game plans, tactics, the pride bursting through his chest. Perhaps, but none of it will compare to the feeling in his gut as he reflects on the horrific journey which took him from a career-threatening head injury on his league debut against Kilmarnock back in August 2006, all the way to the present where he is within 90 minutes of becoming a genuine legend at the Lanarkshire club. A club he felt so distant from during his four-months spent back home in Donegal unable to even read his phone.

“That was a very difficult time for me. I never thought that back then that it would be possible to play in a final. It was a worrying time and there were periods where I feared I might not be able to play again,” said the Motherwell captain, recalling the events of August 6 last year and that clash of heads with Dean Hawkshaw at Rugby Park. “When you move to a new club, as I’d just done, you want to show everyone that you can do a job and that you’re a good signing and that whole spell was very frustrating.

“The injury came during my first league game so your chance to impress the manager and your team-mates and the supporters was taken away from me. That was tough but Mark McGhee [the Motherwell manager at the time] and the club were brilliant. I wasn’t rushed back. They sent me back home, gave me the time to get better and, thankfully, I did. Touch wood, there haven’t been any setbacks since then.”

It took all the way to December 28 for McHugh’s road to recovery being finished, the long journey up the A9 a mere nip across the road compared to the arduous path he gingerly tread in the weeks and months which preceded it.

“I simply couldn’t do anything for three or four months due to the headaches. Then, when I came back here to work with the physios, I started doing little jogging sessions and everything was monitored. The process was really, really slow and it probably took me another couple of months before I was able to train with the team. It was just about increasing my levels of exercise without the symptoms I’d suffered from before coming back.

“I did a lot of work on the treadmill and then I had to get properly fit because I hadn’t played or kicked a ball in almost five months. However, something like that gives you perspective. We all moan about little things but it makes you more appreciative for being able to get up in the morning and go into training. We’re very privileged to earn money from something we love doing. Anyone who plays football for a living is lucky.

“I started to feel better when I went home and didn’t think about football and stopped thinking about when I would get back for Motherwell. I concentrated on going about my life normally and once that happened I started to improve. But it was worrying. There were times when I felt a million miles away from it but thankfully I got there with the help of staff. I’m also lucky I have a very good family/ They and my girlfriend were massive for me at the time. The club were brilliant because they didn’t put me under any pressure and when I was ready Mark McGhee put me back in the team. So this would be a good weekend to pay them back.”

He’s not wrong, but to be fair to the 24-year-old, he has already done more than his fair share since returning to the field on that bitter cold night in Inverness. He returned to a Motherwell side stuck in the relegation mire and crippled with injuries across the defence. It was here Stephen Robinson, who took over after McGhee was sacked in February, thrust him in as a makeshift centre-half, a position the former Bradford City man excelled in.

In the summer Robinson rightly named the English League Cup runner up as Keith Lasley’s successor as captain, with him now a key cog in an industrious central midfield which has seen Motherwell storm into the top six and to their first final in six years. Given the worrying state of flux the Irishman was in the thick of a year ago, he and his team-mates will square up to Celtic without a hint of fear cowering behind their puffed-out chests.

“I think everyone deserves it because the last few seasons have been tough,” he said. “This season we have given the fans a team they can relate to. We might not win every week [Motherwell have won 14 out of their 20 games across league and League Cup] but we work really hard and leave everything out there. We are an honest group of players and we work for each other and it’s a privilege to play with them and I think the supporters respect that.

“It’s the way we approach games without any fear. We won at Aberdeen last Saturday [2-0] and we beat Rangers at Hampden [2-0 in the semi-final] because we weren’t frightened of them. You can’t worry about the outcome, you just worry about what you can control and, when we’ve done that well this season, we’ve got results.”