Hearts embark on three season-defining games in the next ten days and veteran defender Aaron Hughes is determined not to be distracted.
He has placed all thoughts about his future on hold to focus on a potentially pivotal period in the campaign.
Tonight sees Kilmarnock and the Steve Clarke bandwagon roll into Gorgie at considerable pace for a Ladbrokes Premiership fixture. Both clubs harbour ambitions of breaking into the top four and will sense the chance to damage the other’s hopes.
Then, on Sunday, the Scottish Cup comes sharply back into focus when Hearts visit Motherwell in the quarter-finals. Again, both clubs know the tournament represents their only chance of silverware this season.
The Edinburgh derby takes place at Easter Road on Friday week to complete a triumvirate of big engagements. More league points are at stake but, as ever, Capital pride means just as much. Perhaps even more so after respective “natural order” and “the gloves are off” comments by managers Craig Levein and Neil Lennon last time. So, for now, there is plenty to occupy Hughes and his colleagues. The 38-year-old is out of contract this summer and firmly in the twilight of his career. He has been used selectively by Levein all season and is not sure whether to continue playing or to retire.
One thing he does know is that it isn’t a decision to be made now.
“I want to be involved in all the games. That’s why you do the work through the week, to make sure you’re in a position to be selected,” said the Northern Irishman. “We have some really good games coming up. Tonight we play Kilmarnock, then there’s the Scottish Cup quarter-final, and then it’s the derby after that.
“It’s just about keeping fit and being available for selection. Any player, no matter your age or the stage of your career, as long as you’re available to play then you’re fine. The manager picks 11 players and it’s important to me to be available and give him the option to pick me. I’m just trying to keep myself fit for when I’m needed.
“I’m at that stage now, regardless of whether I’m starting or not, it’s the same mindset. You go on the bench and someone could go down in the first minute and you might have to go on. Mentally, you need to be strong enough. That’s not just the case for somebody my age.
“Maybe younger players get a wee bit more frustrated because they want to try and get on the pitch to make an impression. Even being on the bench, you still have to be switched on just in case you’re thrown in. You still need to prepare properly and do your work through the week.”
That professional outlook has served Hughes well throughout a 20-year career at football’s top level. He played 90 minutes for Hearts in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Ibrox but knows, realistically, he won’t play every minute of the next three matches.
He and Levein are conscious of the need to look after his body and not push it to unfeasible limits.
“Tonight is a good game to have. It’s a home game and something to maybe help us bounce back from Saturday. We want to create a bit of momentum going forward,” said Hughes. “I’m getting asked a lot about my own situation, which is understandable with only a few months left. I think I’ll just see how the rest of this season goes and see how I feel. I don’t know the situation with the club either.
“There are a lot of factors involved in that decision. Once I have everything laid out in front of me then I’ll be in a better position to make that decision.”
On the face of it, Hearts would appear rather negligent if they didn’t at least consult Hughes about a possible player/coach role in the near future. His wealth of experience and dedicated approach is something any young footballer would learn from.
Does coaching feature in the myriad of options running round his mind?
“Maybe. There are days when I think about it and days when I don’t. Because I’ve played for so long, when the time does come and I go, ‘right, that’s it,’ I think I’ll take a break.
“I’d like a few months to clear my head, spend time with the family and do things I haven’t been able to do. Silly things like take the kids skiing or something, which I’ve never been able to do in 20 years.
“To dive straight from playing into coaching, you don’t get that break in between.
“People think it’s an easy transition but look at the coaches at Hearts. There are a lot more hours and a lot more work in it.
“When the time comes, I’d like to have a few months to let everything settle in my own head. Then I’d be in a better position to make a judgment.”
He won’t be in that position for a few months yet. There are far more important things to attend to in the meantime.