It says a lot for the regard in which Aaron Hughes is held at Tynecastle that manager Craig Levein said last week there will be a new contract for the 38-year-old if he wants it.
The veteran defender has made just 18 appearances in maroon this season, a combination of injury and the general need to manage the physical demands on his body meaning Hughes has been used sparingly, but with specific games in mind.
Saturday’s against Aberdeen was a case in point, Levein reverting to a back three with Hughes at its centre. The Hearts boss, not for the first time this campaign, was justified as the Jambos eased to a 2-0 win without ever looking in any real danger.
While still capable of navigating his way through games at this level – Saturday’s was something of a stroll – it’s Hughes’ influence off the pitch that is now perhaps the biggest benefit of his continued presence in Gorgie.
With Levein’s first-team squad often boasting multiple teenagers, having the most capped British defender of all time – who also has 455 English Premier League appearances to his name – around as an example to follow is invaluable.
Hughes may still call it a day come the summer. Assumptions that any new deal could incorporate a coaching role are understandable, but the man himself is keen to keep his options open after knowing only one industry for the past 20 years.
“Coaching isn’t something I think I’ll dive straight in to,” Hughes told the Evening News. “I think when I finally do make the decision to hang the boots up, I wouldn’t mind taking a little break if it’s possible. I’ll clear my head a little bit, get a few things in order.
“This is all I’ve done since I was 16 so it’s a long time to then dive straight in to coaching and have that intensity again. You never know – it can happen and I’m not saying it won’t – but in an ideal world and if someone gave me the choice, I’d like a little bit of time to go and do some things with the kids or go places I’ve not been able to in my career. Whatever comes after that will come.
“I’ve got to sit down and have a chat with the gaffer. I’ve been asked a lot over the last few weeks what my plans are and I’m in the same place. I’ll have a chat with him and see what’s ahead and also see how I’m feeling myself, both physically and mentally.”
Until any decision is made, Hughes will still be a figure to emulate at Riccarton, even if he admits he tends to act as an example to follow rather than telling his young colleagues what they should or shouldn’t be doing.
“I can’t think of any time off the top of my head that I’ve actually sat down spoke with anyone and given advice,” said the former Newcastle defender. “Myself, Christophe [Berra], Don [Cowie], Naisy [Steven Naismith] and Laff [Kyle Lafferty] – all the sort of older players in the team, it’s how we train each day, our habits and what we do in games that speaks more rather than actually sitting down and giving young lads advice.
“I think the young lads here are fantastic. They’ve got a good attitude and have come in and really adapted well to being sort of thrown in at times. Wee Harry [Cochrane], Anthony [McDonald], Jamie [Brandon] before he got injured was having a fantastic season. Hendo [Euan Henderson] and Moorey [Lewis Moore], when they’ve been thrown in as well, they aren’t being overawed by it. They go in do what they need to do and it’s fantastic for the football club to see your young players coming in and dealing with the situation. You know you’ve got a good future ahead of you.
“They’re an inquisitive bunch, but it can be hard sometimes when they’re asking about things and at times they happened when they weren’t born! You talk about players and they’re looking blankly so I’m like ‘there’s no point, it was before your time.’
“They’ll pick your brains now and again but it’s not something I’ve set out to do in terms of giving advice. I think your habits and how you are day to day is the way to go. I’ve never been the type of person that’s more vocal.”
Hughes’ versatility has often been utilised by Levein, playing right-back as well as centre-back. A couple of recent outings at left-back yielded mixed results. A comfortable afternoon there in the 3-0 win over Partick Thistle wasn’t replicated in the draw at Dundee and Hughes was pleased to return to a central berth at the weekend.
“I was happier there after my days as a left-back,” he laughed. “It’s one of those things. I can do it, but centre-back’s always been my more natural position, no matter what age or where I’ve been. It’s always nice to be there looking forward and seeing everything going on ahead of you.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that his defensive colleagues picked up the club’s respective Players’ Player, Fans’ Player and Overall Young Player of the Year awards on Sunday night. While Christophe Berra’s displays may be less affected by Hughes’ presence, the progress John Souttar has made alongside him is clear.
“Both of them have had fantastic seasons,” said Hughes. “A lot’s been said about Christophe and deservedly so, but I think John’s had just as good a season. That shouldn’t be overshadowed in any way. It’s very easy to sort of slip in between those and obviously behind us Jon [McLaughlin’s] had a great season too.
“The manager said Christophe is the best in the league and I agree. I can’t remember too many getting the better of him. He’s come back up and slotted in perfectly at his own club and you can’t speak highly enough of him.”