Aaron Hughes believes the tough test Hearts were given against Newcastle United on Friday has helped develop their “competitive mindset” in preparation for their season-opening match away to Elgin City in the Betfred Cup.
Ian Cathro’s side stood up well to their English Premier League visitors as they lost 2-1 at Tynecastle in their fourth and final friendly of the summer. The Hearts players make the long trek to Moray this afternoon ahead of tomorrow’s match against a League Two side crushed 6-0 by Dunfermline in their opener on Saturday.
After four weeks of pre-season, Hughes insists they are heading north in focused mood and good condition. “Friday’s game helped get us into the competitive mindset and takes us nicely into the Elgin game,” the defender told the Evening News. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to be in the right mindset. We can’t be complacent and think it’ll be easy just because they’re in League Two. The work that we’ve done over the last few weeks has been geared towards this game. We’ve never spoken about the level of opposition – it’s all been about preparing for our first competitive game and making sure we’re ready. We’ll be as ready and prepared for this game as we would be for starting the season against Celtic.”
Hughes explained that the visit of his old team to Tynecastle helped sharpen Hearts up significantly, with Newcastle flying out the traps in their first friendly of the summer. “The first ten or 15 minutes weren’t particularly enjoyable because Newcastle started very well and made it difficult for us,” said Hughes. “But that’s the type of test we needed going into the competitive games because it helps highlight a few little areas we needed to have a look at and tighten up. We had to make a few adjustments and after that, I thought we settled down, used the ball really well and created some really good chances. But for their goalkeeper making a couple of great saves, we could have had a few more goals. We coped well with a lot of things.
“Even though it was only a friendly, it bodes well that we managed to respond positively to a difficult start, especially against that level of opposition. The way Newcastle started set the tempo for the game and we then had to match that. We talked about doing that before the game anyway, in terms of approaching it like a competitive game, so it was a really good run-out for us.
“We wanted to make it as competitive as possible and get in the right mindset going forward. Newcastle are of a standard that, regardless of it being their first friendly, they’re always going to be quality opposition.”
Hearts begin their Premiership campaign away to a Celtic a fortnight on Saturday, and Hughes feels the players are coming to the boil nicely. “You can sense the intensity increasing in training all the time,” said the defender. “The manager sets the standard in training and there’s no dropping below that – you have to be on the ball day in, day out. Even in shorter sessions, the intensity is always there. If you train that way consistently throughout the season, you’re going to see that getting taken on to the pitch in matches. In Ireland and in the week leading up to the Newcastle game, we’ve been trying to train at a standard that will allow us to hit the ground running in the competitive games.”
Hearts – who welcome Arnaud Djoum back to training today after international duty – have spent pre-season working on a 3-4-3 formation, and Hughes believes they are adapting well. “When you come up against quality opposition like Newcastle, you learn that you still have little things that need to be looked at and worked out,” he said. “A team like that will find the gaps in your team and your formation. But we’ve taken well to the 3-4-3, and we’re definitely improving with each game. It’s something that, as the weeks go on, we’ll get more and more comfortable with and I think it’s a formation that will stand us in good stead. As you saw against Newcastle, with this formation, it’s easy to switch back to a four at times. We’re comfortable in the three, although we’ve obviously still got little things to work on.”
Hughes has been playing on the right side of a three-man defence, with fellow veteran Christophe Berra on the left. Krystian Nowak has been deployed in the middle, occasionally stepping into midfield when Hearts have possession. Despite being 37, the Northern Irishman has no issue with being tasked with dashing out to the right to provide cover when required. “When you’re playing right of a three, it doesn’t feel like you’re going out as far when you have to cover for the right wing-back,” Hughes explained. “It’s different when you’re playing on the right of a two-man central defence because then you find yourself having to tear all the way out to the right-back area at times, so that’s a lot further to go. But if you’re right of a three, you’re already half-way over there and you have the extra cover of having the middle centre-back, so it feels a lot more natural.
“I think we feel a lot more secure as a unit now with Christophe over on the left. He’s got a lot of experience and he’s been a really good signing for us. Being solid and knowing how to cope in certain situations, he’s going to bring a lot to the team.”
Hughes’ arrival at Hearts in January coincided with a difficult finish to last term as a batch of mid-season signings failed to gel. The defender is adamant that this summer’s recruitment drive will prove more fruitful. “I think we’re in a stronger place than we were last season,” he said. “We’ve made some good signings – not just for their footballing ability, but for the character they’ve brought into the team as well. Being away in Ireland was a good chance for everyone to get together and the dressing-room has gelled really well really quickly.”