Aaron Hughes voluntarily punishing himself during post-match training exercises sums up the attitude of the Northern Irish fitness fanatic.
He returns from injury for Hearts this weekend, provided Sunday’s Premiership match with Partick Thistle goes ahead.
His recovery is timely given the experience he offers with fellow centre-back John Souttar sidelined through concussion. A defensive pairing of 38-year-old Hughes and 32-year-old Christophe Berra gives manager Craig Levein a solid foundation on which to build.
Hughes has been criticised for missing too many Hearts games through injury since joining in January. He has featured in 17 of the club’s 38 competitive matches since his arrival and missed the last six weeks with a calf problem. He did manage 90 minutes for Northern Ireland against Switzerland in Basel on Sunday. As well as earning him a record-breaking 109th international cap, it helped ready him for a domestic return this weekend should Tynecastle’s new main stand finally open.
Those questioning the player’s longevity would be advised to watch him in training and, indeed, after games. At Pittodrie in March, he put himself through a tortuous workout which underlined his commitment to maintaining his body through the veteran years.
Allan Preston, the former Hearts winger and now BBC Radio Scotland pundit, remembers the day well. “Hughes didn’t get on, he was an unused sub up at Aberdeen,” explained Preston. “I was on radio for the BBC so we were there until 5.30pm as normal. Hughes came out after the game and gave himself an absolute pummelling, running about for ages.
“Honest to God, I’ve never seen an unused sub give himself such a hammering to keep his fitness up. He was out on the pitch longer than anybody else. The Aberdeen players came out for a warm-down and he was still running box-to-box, doing sprints and doggies and everything.
“It makes you think: ‘This guy is nearly 38. Magnificent. What a top professional.’ That attitude can only rub off on younger boys at Hearts like Danny Baur, who is a centre-half like Aaron. That’s the kind of role model they should be looking up to.
“Hughes has such a wealth of experience and he’s been a top professional throughout his entire career. Hearts have missed him. I was at the game up at Dundee when he came off after seven minutes. We thought he was going to be out for a while.”
That prognosis proved correct but Hughes is now ready to reappear along with other experienced colleagues. Cameroon’s Arnaud Djoum and the Ghanaian Prince Buaben are rejoining full training and will be in contention to face Partick. They have missed six and four weeks respectively due to knee and hamstring complaints. Midfielder Don Cowie returned from a spell out before the international break.
“It can only be a good thing for Hearts getting these guys back. Cowie, Hughes, Djoum and Buaben are all internationalists,” said Preston. “The young boys have been excellent since they came in. Harry Cochrane has done well, Baur and Lewis Moore have been really good, so that’s great for the future.
“It’s also good to get some experience back in the team because Hearts aren’t playing particularly well at the moment. It’s not pleasing on the eye so you’re hoping that an Arnaud Djoum type, a goalscoring midfielder like him, can make a difference. He likes to get forward, get beyond the strikers and cause another threat.
“Hearts can’t just rely on their strikers to score goals if they want to have a successful season. You need goals from all over the pitch. You want wide players coming in at the back post, you want midfield players going beyond strikers to score, and you need defenders threatening from set-plays. That’s where I think Hearts are lacking. They need goals from every single department in the team.”
Like everyone else connected with Hearts, Preston is praying a safety certificate for Tynecastle’s new main stand can be secured in time to avoid postponing Partick Thistle’s visit. The decision is likely to go down to the wire as builders try frantically to finish off essential areas of the structure and ensure it meets regulations.
If the endeavour is successful, then Hearts players can expect a marked difference in atmosphere back at their spiritual home compared with recent fixtures at BT Murrayfield. “I’ve spoken to opposition players who played against Hearts at Murrayfield – Rangers players, Kilmarnock players, St Johnstone players,” said Preston. “They all said the same thing: It’s a neutral venue. Gone is the fierce atmosphere of Tynecastle and with it the home advantage.
“Murrayfield is a beautiful stadium but it’s a neutral venue. It wasn’t like playing Hearts at home for these teams and I think that was a big loss. I’m sure the fans will generate the atmosphere you expect when they get back to Tynecastle.
“Everyone knows Hearts have been formidable at home and they’ll be hoping to get that run going again when they get back there.
“That will have to help, they will be back in familiar surroundings, along with the fact they’ll have experienced players coming back into the team at an important time.”