The fanfare that surrounded Kyle Lafferty’s arrival at Tynecastle last week was perhaps fitting given the striker’s character and past exploits.
At the top end of the pitch, Hearts have recruited something of a maverick, but one with an impressive pedigree who has become, at international level with Northern Ireland at least, the main man and vital source of goals.
At the other end, Aaron Hughes is a contrast in terms of character and playing style. As his nation’s most-capped outfield player, he’s a big deal in his homeland himself. The first arrival of what is fast becoming an Northern Irish invasion of Tynecastle, the 37-year-old was brought in to add a calmness and assurance to what was a porous Hearts back line in January.
Now likely to form part of a back three alongside returning captain Christophe Berra and initially, Jordan McGhee, Hearts have makings of a solid base, which they hope will allow Lafferty to become an attacking talisman.
“I believe Kyle thrives on that (being the main striker). He enjoys that challenge and that’s when you see the best of him,” said Hughes of his team-mate. “Drawing on that experience at international level, there have been times when he has been that lone striker, someone who needs to do a lot of work for us and the person with the responsibility to make the transition from defence to attack and be an outlet for the team. He holds the ball up, runs the channels and can finish. He pretty much has everything that is suited to how we want to play. He is a big signing for us.
“When you get Kyle playing regularly and get him into a level of consistency and his form goes up, that’s when he really thrives. I think, for him, he is really looking forward to coming here. He has had a tough year and, looking ahead, this is a big season – with Northern Ireland too. To get him up here and playing, I’m really looking forward to seeing how he does. He is someone who will do very well for us.”
Hearts assistant manager Austin MacPhee was able to recount more than one example of Lafferty’s penchant for a laugh from various trips away with the national team. Hughes will have been party to the 29-year-old’s jovial side as well, but is adamant the former Palermo striker is aware enough to know when it’s time to get the business head on and produce.
“Of course, Kyle is a good laugh – but he knows when to be the joker and when to play,” Hughes explained. “Sometimes I think he gets unfair stick because everyone always sees him as the joker. That’s not always the case. When he is on the pitch, he is focused and wants to do well. You only have to look at his quality and, speaking from my experience with Northern Ireland, some of the goals he has scored and the contribution he makes to the cause is massive – not just in terms of goals, but what he gives to the team. He is a big lad, covers the ground, and is deceptively quick when he gets those big legs going. He can do a lot more than just score goals for the team. He can be a real focal point for us.
“He has played big games, has been in Scotland before and knows what to expect from this league. All round, he is a fantastic signing. When I heard that we were interested, I was thinking ‘that would be a great one, I hope it comes through’. As you can imagine, I dropped him a couple of texts and, when it was ongoing, said to him ‘any chance of you just signing this deal?!’.
“The club have worked really hard to make this happen and I really believe Kyle is excited to be here. It is a place that he knows he can do well.”
Of course, having Hughes as a friendly face in the dressing-room, as well as the understanding ear of MacPhee, will assist in Lafferty’s integration as a Hearts player.
“For anyone walking into a dressing-room, no matter how old you are or what experience you have, to have people that you are familiar with straight away always helps that process,” said Hughes. “I know myself from moving around, that knowing someone in the dressing-room for those first couple of days does make a difference. It doesn’t take long to get to know everyone after that.”
This week’s Irish training camp should help. Currently in Dublin ahead of a friendly with St Patrick’s Athletic tomorrow night, Hearts will head Belfast on Friday before Saturday’s game against Linfield. After a stop-start end to last campaign, Hughes is excited about a first full season in maroon.
“When you come in for pre-season it always feels like a fresh start,” he enthused. “You have the whole season to look ahead to. We are starting the campaign with new faces here and there is a feeling of excitement about what’s to come. We have made some really good signings, there is a lot of quality and experience in there. There is plenty of excitement.
“I’m scared to stop in case I stop functioning. When I came back in January my goal was to try and get through the six months, then hopefully get another year. That’s happened. It keeps me playing somewhere I enjoy and it keeps me in contention with the national team in a year when we’ve got a chance of playing in the World Cup. I still feel good. I wouldn’t continue if I didn’t because it’s not fair on anyone, especially me. I still feel okay.”
That being the case, coaching isn’t on the immediate agenda. “I thought about it a couple of years ago and thought about coaching badges but with the games through the summer over the last couple of years I haven’t had a chance,” Hughes explained. “It was more sort of trying to get them just incase as opposed to really having any strong thoughts about it.”