Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes enjoying Australian barbecue lifestyle, but injury hampers his game

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes laughed at the memory of it. He was recalling lighting up the barbecue to cook Christmas dinner in baking 35 degree Melbourne heat. It was a first for Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player and his family.

"We still had turkey, but also seafood and other things," said Hughes, talking about his new life in Australia.

After a long career in English football with Newcastle, Aston Villa, Fulham and Brighton, last summer the 36-year-old moved Down Under to take up a fresh challenge with A-League side Melbourne City. Wife Samantha and daughters Keira and Leila went with him.

The first item Hughes bought was the barbecue.

Never easy to move house, let alone move country, the girls have settled in well to their new school.

"They love it," revealed the Cookstown man in a press conference prior to tomorrow night's friendly against Wales in Cardiff when he hopes to move within three caps of a century.

"The kids are doing well in school, my wife seems to be enjoying it and for them to have a guaranteed good summer and a great way of life is fantastic.

"Something simple like being able to eat outdoors virtually every night is a huge change from home. Some days it is actually too hot and you want to get into a nice air conditioned room. It's a good place to live."

Elaborating on his last Christmas Day, Hughes said: "I was asking the other lads what they did for Christmas. They said 'you can have a Christmas dinner if you want, but we guarantee you it will be too hot. You are best off doing seafood and salad'.

"It was actually a good experience, something different and something we enjoyed."

If the Aussie way of life is working for the Hughes family off the pitch, the Northern Ireland star admits that things have not been so good on it.

Going out to Melbourne, he was unfortunate to have a niggly calf injury. After overcoming that he worked his way into the side and showed his worth, only to pick up another injury. Fit again, he has been unable to force his way back into a team riding high in the table.

Should Hughes play in Cardiff tomorrow night, it will be his first game since January.

"The football side of things personally has been a bit frustrating," he said.

"My calf was playing up a little bit over the first half of the season but from Christmas on I was fine and had a run of games. I picked up another irritation for 10 days, so I didn't miss a great deal in terms of training. It's just that I haven't got back in the side.

"I'm trying to work my way back in. With the internationals, this is a nice change of scenery and a chance to get some minutes on the pitch.

"Going out there, I wanted to try something new. I am there to work. It has been frustrating at times and it is not easy to enjoy the good weather and the barbecues all the time because ultimately I am still there to play football and when that is going well I'm happy."

On the standard in Australia, Hughes added: "On the whole it's not bad, the standard is actually quite good. There are a lot of good players out there.

"It's a league that's trying to grow and go the right way and make a name for itself. The MLS has probably taken over as a foreign league to watch, but it's trying to attract bigger players and internationals to help it grow.

"If it keeps going in the right way, it'll get a lot better and be similar to the MLS," said Hughes, who will decide if he wishes to extend his one-year contract with Melbourne in the coming months.

For now though he is delighted to be back with the Northern Ireland squad for the game with Wales and another friendly at home to Slovenia on Monday.

Making it to 100 caps comes up in the conversation. It has been that way for some time when Aaron conducts a press conference.

"I've been edging towards it for about two years! Look, if it comes, it comes. My priorities and thoughts are more on other things and really getting back on the pitch playing. I've missed that a lot," he said.

"We'll see what happens in the next few weeks and months and obviously I have to get on the pitch first. That's my priority, working towards that.

"Over the last couple of years, it has seemed if I played in certain games, I'd reach a certain number of caps by a certain point, but it doesn't always work out that way in football.

"I don't think I'm in a position to pick and choose my games, so I'll take wherever they might come. If it happens I'll be very happy."

Hughes will be the only Northern Ireland player involved tomorrow who played the last time the sides met in Cardiff - a thrilling 2-2 draw in 2004 when David Healy, Michael Hughes and Robbie Savage were sent off.

Hughes was outstanding 12 years ago and won't let the side down if he plays this time around.

And on Euro 2016, Northern Ireland's most experienced campaigner has this to say: "Working hard and preparing well has got us results in the past and through the qualifying campaign, so if we take that same mindset into the group stages there's no reason why we can't surprise a few people."

Belfast Telegraph