Only Pat Jennings holds more Northern Ireland caps than Aaron Hughes.
The goalkeeping legend won multiple trophies during a decorated career in England, whereas Hughes, aged 37, has no winner’s medal. It is the one thing missing from an outstanding CV and something he is keen to rectify with Hearts.
The defender, with 104 international caps to Jennings’ 119, rolls names like Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney off the tongue when asked about his toughest opponents. He should, therefore, handle Declan McManus and Ryan Hardie with consummate ease on his Hearts debut tomorrow against Raith Rovers.
Progressing past the Championship side and into the Scottish Cup fifth round would take Hughes one step closer to that elusive first trophy. “I would definitely want that,” said the player, who signed a six-month deal at Tynecastle after leaving the Indian club Kerala Blasters.
“Out in India, we got beat in the [Super League] final on penalties. Even to have won a trophy there – although it might not be viewed as the most glamorous league – it still would have been a trophy and I really wanted to win it. It just didn’t happen.
“It probably is the one thing missing. I’ve had a couple of runners-up but a medal of some sort would be nice. When I’m finished, and looking back on all the games and the different things that have happened, it’s knowing that, at one point, yes, we were actually champions of something. If you ask any footballer, they would say the same thing.”
What Hughes may lack in silverware he makes up for in glamorous acquaintances. “Kenny Dalglish gave me my debut at Newcastle,” he recalled. “I maybe wasn’t a regular in the first-team squad, but Kenny was a good manager.
“Then Sir Bobby [Robson] came in. He had the confidence to let me establish myself. He was a great manager, as everyone says. He was such an enthusiastic man about everything, not just football. So to be able to work under him was fantastic.
“Roy Hodgson’s attention to detail [at Fulham] was better than anyone I’ve ever worked under. He was very, very thorough, very knowledgable on the game. It was great experience under him.
“Michael [O’Neill, Northern Ireland coach] has done well not just with the senior team but with football on the whole in Northern Ireland, going to the Euros and all the rest of it. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some top, top managers and players. There are so many, sometimes I forget some of the guys I’ve played with.”
Those he has played against certainly top those he will come across at Stark’s Park tomorrow. “Thierry Henry was one of the toughest,” said Hughes. “At that time, with the way Arsenal were playing, they were so free and fluent and so quick as well.They were very difficult to play against. Drogba was difficult to play against. Rooney, not just for his finishing ability but his movement. I don’t think people realise how good his movement is, he’s actually quicker than a lot of people think. He’s powerful, he has that first three or four yards to get away from you and you can never seem to get next to him.”
Hughes is more concerned with the future. He wants to make an impact at Hearts and potentially secure a longer contract after moving his family to Edinburgh. He is also preparing to play for a manager seven years his junior in Ian Cathro.
“Yeah, that’s new,” he said. “I’m tempted to say I still feel 25 in my head so I don’t think about it too much. The manager is quite a strong character. When I sat down and had a chat with him, you could tell that. He’s very focused and very motivated. He had that strong presence about him. When you’ve got that, it doesn’t really matter what age you are.
“I’ve not had an opportunity to play in Scotland before. I wanted to play at a standard that kept me involved with the national team but also something I felt I could have a real good go at. I’ve not been in Scotland before and, although it’s British football, it’s still new. I’m quite happy I came here.”
He hopes to continue with Northern Ireland and sample the 2018 World Cup if O’Neill can guide them to Russia. Playing at Euro 2016 last year was the highlight of a stunning career so far for Hughes. Might he even surpass Jennings’ cap record? “I don’t know, it’s not something where I think: ‘I can really go on and get that’.
“Last year I was looking at things ahead of me. I was almost at 100 caps and the Euros were coming up and that was all I was sort of thinking about. I thought if I could just stay fit and keep playing and get to the 100 and be involved in the Euros, then great. I did that and it’s something I will treasure.
“After it, I still wanted to play so I thought I’d keep playing and see what happens. I’m not setting any targets in terms of the national team. I just want to be available and be fit and be involved with the World Cup campaign and then see what it brings.”