Only proper professionals can manage their own training schedules successfully, which is why Hearts place full trust in their Northern Ireland internationalist Aaron Hughes.
The 37-year-old today explained how he sits out parts of midweek training to ensure he is ready to play come a weekend.
Manager Craig Levein and the club’s physiotherapists are helping Hughes decide which sessions he gets the most from and allowing him to miss the odd one. He will often do individual strengthening work instead to ensure his veteran body stays in peak physical condition for matches on a Saturday.
Tomorrow sees Hearts travel to Dens Park to meet Dundee in the Ladbrokes Premiership and Hughes, as ever, is eager to be involved. He is fit and ready having played in two of the three matches since Levein returned to the dugout. Part of his remit whilst enjoying the twilight of his career in Edinburgh is preparing himself by doing what is necessary.
“I know what I need to play on a Saturday. When I’ve had a knock or a niggle or haven’t played, I know what I need to do through the week to make sure I’m fit for the game on a Saturday,” said the defender.
“You manage yourself through the week. Some training sessions you need to be a part of, other ones it’s maybe beneficial not to be. You’re looking at the bigger picture for the weekend and managing your load through the week.”
Hughes insisted he would never attempt to pick and choose which matches he played in. “Picking and choosing games is totally different. I don’t think it would ever get to that stage. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with it and I’m sure the club wouldn’t want a player like that either.
“Through the week, you just manage things because being fit for Saturday is the most important thing.
“It’s a recent thing and it’s taken me a while to get my head round it. I’ve been lucky in my career that I haven’t had any serious injuries, so I was used to training regularly. It took getting used to but you start to know what you need through the week. Older players and younger players are different in terms of what they need to build themselves up.”
Levein, himself an international centre-back like Hughes, is fully supportive. The former Newcastle United and Fulham defender has enjoyed a long career at the top level and is now at a stage where he recognises what is necessary for his body.
“The manager has been great with me and the physios have been a massive help. Their help and guidance have helped me adapt to it. I did it at Melbourne and I’m doing it again here. It’s not a case of dropping out of training sessions, or thinking you’re not fit and able enough to train.
“It’s more the fact that you might not need to do something. There are more benefits from sitting that one out because you’ll get more benefit on a Saturday, rather than picking and choosing sessions and going: ‘I don’t want to do that one.’
“People aren’t used to it and sometimes don’t understand how in-depth it is. Sometimes I’ve sat out a session to go and do a bit of extra strength work inside, because that’s more beneficial. People are asking me: ‘Are you injured? Are you okay?’ It’s just getting used to knowing that it’s fine to do that.
“Craig has been great since I’ve been here. He was upstairs when I got here in January. He’s fully supportive of me managing things through the week because he wants me to be as fit as I can be for the Saturday. He’s quite open about it.
“On the pitch, he keeps things really basic and simple. It’s black and white. You know your job, you know what he wants from you and what you need to do for the team. There are no grey areas so everyone starts from the same platform.”
That platform is an unfamiliar one right now as Hearts continue on a seemingly endless run of away matches. The latest is against Dundee and, after the upcoming international break, there is another journey to Dingwall before they return to Edinburgh. Players have adjusted their mindset to cope.
“It just becomes normal,” said Hughes. “You get in to the routine of training through the week and preparing for a game at the weekend. I don’t think it’s ever been a factor mentally. ‘Oh, we’ve another away game. Oh, we’ve another away game.’ It hasn’t been that way. Equally, we haven’t looked ahead thinking we have all these home games to make up for anything we haven’t achieved before that.
“We aren’t banking on all those home games as matches we have more chance of winning. We want to get as much out of every away game as possible.”
A win at Hamilton and a draw at Partick Thistle in the last two weeks were evidence of a certain grittiness instilled by Levein. It is a necessary evil until Hearts can return to Tynecastle in front of a new main stand in early November.
Quality football is secondary to results at the moment, although players are encouraged by prising results when they may not be at their best.
“We didn’t play great last week at Partick but we still managed to dig something out. I always look at that as a positive,” said Hughes.
“We know we didn’t play brilliantly but we came away with something at the end. We were able to hang in there and make the most of it. That’s a sign we’re moving in the right direction. It is nice just to have a period when we can get on with our work and put a few results together. It’s a stable platform for us to build on.”