Franz Beckenbauer, Didier Deschamps, Michael Laudrup, Diego Simeone, Carles Puyol. Each one a superstar on the world stage, but none can touch Hearts defender Aaron Hughes for international caps.
Only when you examine the list of players Hughes has surpassed en route to 109 Northern Ireland caps do you fully appreciate the magnitude of his achievement.
At 38, inside St Jakob Park in Basel a week past Sunday, Hughes became the most-capped defender in the United Kingdom. He beat England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore’s 108-cap record, and also has more international appearances than Kenny Dalglish, Bobby Charlton and Frank Lampard. He is now just ten short short of Pat Jennings’ Northern Ireland record.
Elimination from the two-legged World Cup play-off by Switzerland left Hughes devastated. Not least because the 1-0 aggregate defeat came down to a rather ridiculous penalty decision in the first leg in Belfast. He is back in Edinburgh and played 90 minutes for Hearts against Partick Thistle on Sunday but is still struggling to accept the fact he won’t be in Russia next summer. The cap record doesn’t temper his disappointment despite the obvious pride.
He will take time to consider his international future over the next few months, mindful that his ageing body can only go on for so long. If he doesn’t feel able to complete the two-year qualification campaign for Euro 2020, he won’t even begin. It will be time to retire, and perhaps reflect on a hugely successful 19-year career representing Northern Ireland.
For now, his head is awash with mixed emotions. “It’s an honour to get that many caps for your country. I’m proud of the fact I’ve been able to get to that number, stick around this long and still be involved,” he told the Evening News.
“I’m obviously very thankful to the manager, Michael O’Neill, for keeping me involved in the latter stages of my career, still seeing something in me that I could bring to the team. Maybe in time, perhaps when I’ve finished playing, I’ll look back and the achievement will shine in a better light. Right now, the feeling of going out of the World Cup is still really raw and that’s put a massive downer on everything. While I’ll probably appreciate it in the future, for now it’s something I haven’t thought a lot about.
“It’s a funny one because everyone keeps coming up to me saying: ‘Congratulations, well done.’ In no way do I feel good, though, just because of the result against Switzerland. It’s all I can think about - how we haven’t got to the World Cup. Every time somebody congratulates me, it takes me a second to process what they’re talking about.”
Hughes is nonetheless aware of the exalted company he now stands beside. “When you’re looking at the names alongside you that you’ve gone past, that maybe makes it more glamorous than it feels. For me, it was always just about playing for Northern Ireland. I wasn’t really looking at who else was around or anything like that. I’m just very honoured at having been able to rack up that many caps.
“It wasn’t like it was a target to get to 109, or something I aimed to do. That was never the plan. It’s just one of those things which has happened. I enjoy playing for Northern Ireland and I wanted to represent my country. The caps have racked up because I’ve managed to stay involved for this long, so that’s got me to this point.”
Whether there is a 110th cap remains to be seen. Hughes is in no rush to make any decision with international football now in storage until the spring. His focus is firmly on staying fit enough to gain a consistent run of games at Hearts. Since arriving in January, his longest sequence in the team has lasted eight games.
The qualification process for Euro 2020 doesn’t begin until next autumn, so the defender has time on his side. “I haven’t decided anything on what I do with Northern Ireland yet,” he explained. “I said to Michael after the game that I need to just take a wee bit of time now and digest what happened. My focus now is on trying to get a run of games here and get my fitness back up.
“I’ll just see how I go. First, I’ll see how my body feels and then mentally I’ll see how I am. At the start of the last campaign, when I came back from Australia, I said it was a big commitment. If I start the next campaign, I’d like to see it through. I don’t want to start it and then see how it goes and maybe drop out halfway through.
“I’ve got to make sure that, if I do make that commitment, my body is willing to do it and mentally I’m able to get through another two years of international football. That’s how I’m looking at it right now. It’s hard to look past the next few months. Last week is still really raw, there’s still so much emotion from it that I haven’t really been able to project forward.
“Being here and looking forward to Sunday’s game against Partick has been the only real distraction from it. I’ll have a think and, if I feel I can do it, then maybe I will. If I feel I can’t, then I won’t.”
Hughes played the full match for Hearts on Sunday following 90 minutes for Northern Ireland in Basel. Having taken an extra couple of weeks to build muscle strength after a persistent calf injury, he is desperate to maintain fitness through the winter.
“I got another 90 minutes so it’s nice to be back. I’d played for Northern Ireland so it’s good to get back playing here, too. It took a wee bit longer this time just to try and get more strength work done. Instead of coming back after three weeks, we took the extra couple of weeks to really make sure I had the best chance of staying fit and getting a few more games.
“That’s the plan now, to get a run of games. I haven’t really had that with Hearts. I’ve taken longer out this time to build up a better fitness base. I wanted a bit more endurance without the risk of a game. That gives me a better chance going forward. I felt good during the week when I was away and it felt good on Sunday. No issues, so hopefully that’s me up and running again.”