Aaron Hughes knows he can’t last forever. At 38, the Hearts defender will take one game at a time until the end of the season. His body won’t allow anything else, and Hughes is pragmatic enough to acknowledge so.
There is no point looking ahead. Hughes doesn’t even know what next week may hold in terms of his fitness, although the calf complaint which has repeatedly hindered him this season is easing.
Right now, he is making the most of the Spanish surroundings during Hearts’ winter training camp. He has made only five appearances since September so his priority is to play in the Scottish Cup tie against Hibs next Sunday. Nothing more.
“I’m not looking too far ahead at the minute. I’m just managing each week as it comes,” he explained. “The games are the most important and, if I can get through, then it’s job done and plan for the next one.
“I took most of the time off [at the start of the winter break]. It’s a break for a reason. I feel okay, I feel fine. The Aberdeen game was a good judge of it with it being a full 90 minutes in a competitive game. I felt fine afterwards.
“It’s about switching off mentally as well and the days off are about that. It’s nice not to have to get up in the morning and think about the day ahead. It’s as much a mental break as anything.”
Hearts fans are keen to know if he is finally over that aforementioned calf injury. “It’s hard to say, it’s one of those things, you think you’re on top of it then it pops up. One day it’s sore, you keep going then actually it’s all right. It’s one of those things to get on with and get through.
“I keep trying to work as hard as I can, off the pitch as well with the strength work. We’ve got a yoga person who comes in on recovery days and we have access to that. That all helps in different ways. I’m trying everything.”
Hughes’ extensive experience of football at the highest level could be a valuable asset to Hearts as they try to knock Hibs out of the Scottish Cup. Next weekend will be their third attempt at doing so in the last three years.
“It seems like it’s only five minutes ago that we played them before,” said Hughes. “I’m looking forward to it, it’s a cup game and it’s a big incentive having been knocked out in the last couple of years as well. It would be nice to progress in the cup.
“There’s an incentive there on top of the fact that it’s a derby game. It’s important to remember among all the hype around it that it’s the Scottish Cup and there’s a trophy at the end of it. That can get lost a bit. It’s a chance to get a trophy at the end of the season and that would be huge.”
Hearts welcome Hibs to Tynecastle Park aiming to protect their impressive record of six consecutive clean sheets. “It’s definitely a nice thing. I just came back into the team at the end of it but it’s nice for John Souttar, Christophe Berra and Jon McLaughlin in goals. They have been there for the most part of it. Strikers get their goals but for defenders clean sheets are our goals.”
Souttar is a key part of the resistance. Still only 21, he has taken on the authority of an elder statesman within a young dressing room. He is also displaying a maturity of performance well beyond his years.
“He can be very good, he’s got the world at his feet if he can keep going the way he’s going,” said Hughes of his central defensive colleague. “He’s definitely got a big, big future in the game. I think he is a fantastic player and I really enjoy playing alongside him. He’s a very easy player to play with.
“He’s a mature player for his age already, even just how he is in general, not just on the pitch. I think he’s got a good future in that respect and he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
It is surely only a matter of time before Souttar earns a call-up to the Scotland senior squad. “Definitely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other teams start looking at him as well,” remarked Hughes.
Trying to fit in around youngsters is all Hughes seems to do these days. Hearts’ promotion of youth academy kids has continued in Spain, with 15-year-old Connor Smith included in the squad alongside 16-year-old Harry Cochrane and 17-year-olds Euan Henderson and Andy Irving.
“It’s nice to see them coming through but it’s been a long time since I was that age,” smiled Hughes. “I find they’re good, they’ve got great characters and very easy to get along with. They’re confident without being arrogant but they’re not shy either, they have that good balance and on the pitch they fit in seamlessly.”