Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Aaron Hughes dreaming of Wembley glory for Fulham

Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes is plotting a route to Wembley with Fulham under manager Mark Hughes.

Aaron Hughes has only ever been to the new Wembley once. Not to play but to watch, wait for it...an NFL game.



He enjoyed the American football, but would much rather prefer that his next visit to the famous stadium is for one of English football's grandest occasions.

The Northern Ireland skipper would love to play in an FA Cup final, preferably the one coming up in May. He's been close before.

As a kid with Newcastle United he was in the squad for the 1998 and 1999 finals at the old Wembley, but frustratingly missed out on a place on the bench both years.

In 2000 he was in the team, playing in defence for the Geordies when they lost 2-1 to Chelsea in the semi-finals under the shadow of the twin towers, which are no longer there since the iconic venue was re-constructed.

Playing at the old Wembley in a semi-final is one thing.

Playing at the new Wembley in a final would be so much better.

To have a chance of getting there Hughes and his Fulham team-mates must pass a difficult test in the fourth round. They host Tottenham at Craven Cottage on Sunday.

And remember there is a one in the year so most Spurs fans already think their name is on the trophy.

The White Hart Lane outfit beat Fulham in a replayed quarter-final of the competition a year ago.

This season they've met twice already in the Premier League with Harry Redknapp's men coming out on top on both occasions, so the 31-year-old is under no illusions about the size of the task facing Fulham.

“In our games this season we have lost to Spurs, but both were tight. I expect it to be close again,” says the Cookstown man, rightly regarded as one of the most consistent defenders in England.

“They have some great players and are having a good season. They are challenging for a top four place again and are in the last 16 of the Champions League, so we know it will be tough, but we have ability in our side too and perhaps haven't got the results we deserved at times. Hopefully we'll get one on Sunday. We'll certainly go into the game with a positive attitude believing we can win.”

It was that mental strength that helped Fulham, under Roy Hodgson, reach the Europa League final last season — a remarkable achievement in which Hughes and his countryman Chris Baird played major roles.

They lost out in the decider to a Diego Forlan inspired Atletico Madrid, but great heart was taken by the players in how far they progressed.

“We really enjoyed it. There were some brilliant nights which we'll all remember for a long time,” says the former Aston Villa ace.

If you can make a European final, why not go all the way in the FA Cup?

“That would be fantastic,” admits doting dad Hughes, who lives in Surrey with his wife and two young daughters.

“But we have a lot to do before we get to that stage.

“Everyone dreams of playing a Cup final at Wembley. When I was at Newcastle we reached two finals, but I wasn't involved.

“I did play at the old Wembley once for Newcastle in a semi-final defeat to Chelsea. The atmosphere was great with all the Geordies there, but it is a hard place to lose.

“As for the new Wembley I've been there once at an NFL game and I was really impressed by the place. It would be great to go back with Fulham.”

It's not just the Wembley experience that Hughes is after, it's winning some silverware, something he has yet to achieve

in a fine career which started back in 1997 when he made his debut as a teenager for Kenny Dalglish's Newcastle side against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. Hughes and Dalglish were in opposition on Wednesday night as Liverpool got lucky in a 1-0 victory at Anfield in the league.

Northern Ireland's leader, looking forward to next month's Carling Nations Cup clash with Scotland in Dublin, had an exceptional game and was close to scoring an equaliser late on.

He's having another solid season, but is one of those players rarely praised by the pundits.

And unlike some of your modern day footballers, modest and team orientated Aaron would never seek it.

There's more chance of Andy Gray and Richard Keys being put in charge of the England women's football team!

He's the guy that just gets on with his job — extremely well too. He wouldn't have played 500 games with top flight sides and won 75 caps otherwise.

Mark Hughes is the latest in a long line of club managers to appreciate his talents, while Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington is a massive admirer.

Both would agree few would deserve an FA Cup final appearance at Wembley more than their reliable central defender.

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