Aaron Hughes believes Hearts can help him achieve his World Cup dream after signing a one-year contract extension at Tynecastle.
The veteran Northern Ireland defender agreed to another year hoping regular football in Scotland will secure his international place at Russia 2018.
Aged 37, Hughes acknowledged that his senior career only has so long left but he is desperate to represent his country at the World Cup finals before retiring. He joined Hearts in January on a six-month deal which has now been extended. Regular football in Edinburgh over the next 12 months is necessary for the player to realise his international ambition.
“Yeah that was more to do with my decision just to play on for another year,” he explained. “Before I even came to Hearts my thoughts, without having anything nailed down, were that if I could play a bit of football for six months and prove I could still do it, so to speak, and get that further year.
“It enabled me to still stay involved with Northern Ireland. We are having a good run at the minute and we’re in a good position in the group. If I can keep myself fit and playing at a good level, which this is, it will hopefully keep me involved through to the end of the World Cup campaign, too. So it was a big influence on my decision to keep playing, and then also to stay at a club like this.”
There is also a logical geographic aspect to the decision to stay in Scotland. It is significantly easier to travel from Edinburgh to Belfast to play for Northern Ireland compared with the last two stop-offs in Hughes’ career – India and Australia.
Northern Ireland play New Zealand in a friendly on June 2 before a trip to Azerbaijan for a World Cup qualifier eight days later. Hughes is eager to make the journey to South Caucasus. He hasn’t featured at club level since February due to a persistent calf injury but is finally fit again and could feature when Hearts face Aberdeen at Tynecastle tomorrow.
“Hopefully, if I can get back playing a bit of football, I can make the [Northern Ireland] squad. It’s a short close season and if I was younger I would probably be cursing it. Because I have had this little break with injury, at my stage you don’t know how much football is left! So I don’t mind. Come the end of next year I could be sat there with all the time in the world. So I’ll take the football now while it’s on the table.”
A ten-week lay-off came at the most inopportune time for the defender, just eight games into his Hearts career. However, he moved to reassure supporters that he is not injury-prone and will do himself justice next season. “It’s been frustrating because of the length of time out but the injury was a little niggle,” said Hughes. “It took a few weeks to figure out exactly what it was. Because it went away so quick, I was able to come back to about 80 or 90 per cent fitness and then it would creep in again.
“Once we figured out what it was and realised it just needed a bit more time, it was fine. There was never a doubt in my mind that I couldn’t continue. I wouldn’t commit to another year if I didn’t think I was able to. The decision was all football-based.”
He is adamant Hearts are progressing and will achieve bigger and better things next season. “I said from the start I enjoyed it here and that hasn’t changed. The last few weeks have been frustrating, not being able to get out on the pitch. That aside, I’ve enjoyed everything so far.
“I can see what they’re doing, it’s just something that needs worked on every day. We see it day in and day out, so you see the little improvements and things you have to work on. On a Saturday, you hope it falls into place and sometimes it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not going in the right direction.
“Football sometimes isn’t the most patient sport or job in the world. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to stay here, I see the place going forward and the good things around. There is definitely the potential to go to bigger and better things.”
Asked if head coach Ian Cathro’s methods are different to what he experienced elsewhere in England and abroad, Hughes responded: “Not hugely. Every manager is different in terms of how they play, what movements they want here and there. Once everyone starts getting used to the movements and they become more natural, it starts to flow a bit better. It’s not hugely different or overly complicated. It just demands a bit of concentration on style, hard work, and I think we’ll see the rewards of it.”
One of the things he looks forward to is resuming a central-defensive partnership with John Souttar, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in January. “I was devastated when he got injured only having played a couple of games with him,” said Hughes. “When he gets himself back to fitness that will be another huge boost for the club. I enjoyed the couple of games I did play with him, so if I can get a few more between now and the end of next season that would be good.”