Hughes chases Fulham's Wembley dream
Aaron Hughes sat out Northern Ireland’s trip to Albania this week. ‘Lucky him’ many of those who trekked to Tirana might say after the dismal 1-0 defeat.
Under normal circumstances the international captain would have been there leading his troops into battle and putting club football to the back of his mind for a few days.
This is no normal season for Hughes and his Fulham team-mates though.
Performing solidly and consistently in the Premier League and still harbouring hopes of emulating last season’s highest ever league finish of seventh, there is also a chase for silverware down at Craven Cottage — and on two separate fronts, one at home and another abroad.
Massive dates away to two of the biggest names Europe has to offer in the shape of trips to Juventus in the Europa League and Manchester United in the Premier League are looming large on the horizon over the next 10 days.
While footballers traditionally trot out the old ‘one game at a time’ cliche, it definitely is the next game that is the most important for Hughes as he would gladly take victory over London rivals Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow afternoon, with Wembley two steps away and the FA Cup having much more of a shine to the Cookstown-man than triumphing in Europe.
Hughes has been to Wembley when Newcastle United made it to back-to-back finals in the late 1990s, but he failed to make the bench on either occasion.
“For us to even talk about winning either of them is a massive thing,” said the 30-year-old, who has captained Northern Ireland for eight years.
“I'd rather win the FA Cup because it's a domestic competition and as a kid growing up it's the one you think about.
“The FA Cup still has that something special, especially now it's back at Wembley. It's a massive day.
“That said, if we could progress in the Europa League I wouldn't say no.”
Hughes’ Fulham and Northern Ireland team-mate Chris Baird has never played at Wembley either, but he did impress in the 2003 FA Cup final in
Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, when he was named Southampton’s Man of the Match in their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, despite it being only his second start for the club.
He has forced his way into the Fulham team on a regular basis this season and he has his sights on a glorious end to the campaign.
“It shows how far the club's come,” said Baird.
“To finish seventh last season and qualify for Europe was absolutely fantastic.
“Now that we're in the quarter-final of the FA Cup and in the last 16 in the Europa League it shows what a good side we really are. We don't want it to end, we want to keep going and see how far we can go.”
Fulham’s improvement over the last couple of seasons has been built on the firm foundation of Hughes’ central defensive solid partnership with Norwegian captain Brede Hangeland.
Hangeland has attracted attention from clubs across Europe, but it seems it’s a partnership that works rather than individuals standing out.
“Brede has everything you could want a central defender to have,” said Hughes.
“He's 6ft 5 and his aerial capabilities are fantastic, but for such a big lad he's comfortable with the ball at his feet, he can see a pass and play it.
“We’ve formed a good partnership and you can see why he had interest from other clubs.”