Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Aaron Hughes - the best defender in Britain

Nigel Worthington and Aaron Hughes look ahead to tonight's game at the Culloden Hotel yesterday
Rio Ferdinand
Ledley King

England's latest great white hope Andy Carroll will make his eagerly anticipated international debut tonight.

Clearly then he has clawed his way out of Aaron Hughes' pocket to face the French at Wembley.

Such has been the fanfare about the controversial Carroll, it seems that just about every Premier League defence has struggled to contain the long haired Toon Army idol.

That was until Newcastle hosted Fulham on Saturday.

Back on his old stomping ground, Hughes excelled in the scoreless draw, dealing superbly with the threat of Carroll.

I couldn't believe it when Aaron actually received some credit for his performance.

Normally he is ignored and undervalued by pundits and the English scribes, while other less deserving souls grab the limelight.

The 31-year-old from Cookstown wouldn't have it any other way.

The Northern Ireland captain is modest to a fault, preferring to praise others for their contribution to the cause, even when his own is the most telling, as was the case against Carroll at the weekend.

You see, Aaron's not just a class act on the field, he's exactly the same off it.

He will be embarrassed by this but once in a poll conducted by yours truly, while travelling with the Northern Ireland team, a group of journalists voted Hughes the nicest guy in football.

It was a landslide.

Down the years many of football's biggest names have selected Aaron too.

He's now played almost 500 club games and close to 400 in the Premier League, plus 74 caps have been won. Not bad for a guy who is barely mentioned in most match reports.

He is appreciated though by team-mates, who would tell you that his composure and selfless nature in the heat of battle gives them confidence. Fulham's Brede Hangeland loves playing alongside Aaron at club level. Ditto Stephen Craigan on the international front. Jonny Evans will enjoy the experience in central defence tonight against Morocco at Windsor Park.

Players like him. So too most managers he has played under.

When Kenny Dalglish was in Belfast recently, he spoke eloquently about his admiration of how his former player at Newcastle has shone at top flight level for so long.

Ruud Gullit, David O'Leary, Roy Hodgson and current Fulham boss Mark Hughes would be equally respectful of the former Newcastle and Aston Villa ace. Had the great Sir Bobby Robson still been alive, he would pay a handsome tribute while his international bosses Lawrie McMenemy, Sammy McIlroy, Lawrie Sanchez and now Nigel Worthington class the defender as the model pro.

Since making his first team debut as a 17-year-old at the Nou Camp in 1997 for Newcastle against Barcelona, only two managers have failed to realise the value of Hughes.

Graeme Souness broke Aaron's heart in 2005 when he told him his Newcastle days were over.

Souness decided that having signed Jean-Alain Boumsong for £8.5 million the consistency of Hughes was surplus to requirements.

A shocking decision which still brings Geordies out in a cold sweat.

Intriguingly the other boss who never truly realised what Hughes offers a team was his countryman Martin O'Neill, when he took over at Aston Villa. In contrast Fulham boss Mark Hughes fully appreciates the player.

He says: “Aaron has been outstanding since I became Fulham manager. He doesn't get headlines, but everyone here knows how vital he is to the team.”

All this begs the question, just how good is Aaron?

Well, right now it is difficult to name a more consistent British defender.

Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and Chelsea's John Terry are the obvious choices, but while Hughes is getting better with age, the powers of England's first choice defenders are dwindling. Pity they couldn't say the same about the number of injuries they suffer these days.

Tottenham's Ledley King is a quality performer, but Royal weddings come around more often than his appearances. Look at Manchester City and all the publicity generated by Joleon Lescott's outrageous £22 million move from Everton, yet he doesn't get anywhere near the team.

Hughes has been an ever present for Fulham this season.

And thankfully, while others have pulled out quicker than Gillian McKeith in a Bushtucker trial on I'm a Celebrity... Aaron will be at Windsor tonight leading Northern Ireland.

Low key and reliable as ever.

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