Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Why gentleman Aaron Hughes is an inspiration and a true Northern Ireland legend

Aaron Hughes made a total of 112 appearances for Northern Ireland.
Aaron Hughes made a total of 112 appearances for Northern Ireland.
Aaron Hughes

By Paul Ferguson in the Sunday Life

For over an hour at the hotel bistro, my colleague and I chewed the fat with Aaron Hughes in Panama City last year.

It was unscheduled, unprompted and, as I later found out, unnecessary.

Lunch was served but Hughes politely declined even a cup of tea, having eaten with the squad earlier in the day.

As we ate, Hughes was enthusiastically upbeat on all the young recruits boss Michael O'Neill had introduced into his squad for the Central America trip and the different places he'd been at recently - having signed for Melbourne City in Australia and Indian club Kerala Blasters - while listening intently to our own personal traipses around the globe.

Then, after a prolonged period of general chitchat and with a gap in the conversation, he appeared almost pained but calmly said: "Sorry guys, but do you guys still need me for an interview? It's just, if you don't mind, I have a planned physio session in a few minutes."

Cue surprised looks.

Hughes simply had his planned big sit-down interview - most of the Northern Ireland players were asked to conduct media work that week - put back until the second half of the tour in Costa Rica.

Apologies were, of course, immediately forthcoming for wasting his time as his team-mates used the free time between training sessions to head for a walk, enjoy the local coffee bars or simply soak up the rays on their terrace.

But his response was typical of the man - "No need, I enjoyed the chat," stated Hughes. "I would stay longer but I really have to get to physio. Sure, we'll do the interview later in the week."

Other players may have gone off in a strop, irked their time was wasted, or simply took a mental note to make themselves available for future media duties.

The man who had captained Northern Ireland to wonderful Windsor Park wins over England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark - and made his re-appearance in the side at right-back for the stunning victory over Ukraine at the Euro 2016 finals - handled the situation in the most dignified and exemplary fashion.

It was befitting of Hughes who, then at the age of 38, had earned the reputation of being a gentleman and an inspiration to every young player in the land with how he conducted himself on and off the pitch.

After Hughes announced his official retirement to his international team-mates in the Borisov Arena following Northern Ireland's dramatic 1-0 win over Belarus in midweek, the tributes flowed in from clubs, fellow professionals and fans. And, for what must be a first in this new social media age, there wasn't one derogatory comment in response.

He lived the clean life of a professional sportsman, dedicated to his training and the fuel he used to fire his body.

As one former team-mate told me: "I never once saw Aaron eat or drink anything other than what would be good for him. He didn't have cheat days.

"Aaron's the consummate professional and it's obviously the reason why he has been able to go on for so long and at a high level."

Of course, only those closest to him knew this - as a humble lad, he simply believed it was necessary and part of the job.

When, as a raw 18-year-old, Hughes made his international and domestic debut, he could have been easily swept up in the culture of the big personalities in the squad and Premier League circus at Newcastle United.

Instead he remained dedicated, determined and darn special - always striving to get the best out of his ability but without fuss.

It was no wonder Sir Bobby Robson opted to give Hughes his Magpies debut at the formidable Camp Nou against Barcelona and why Lawrie McMenemy threw him in against Slovakia in 1998.

Centre backs are often loud and physical but there was a calm assuredness about Hughes' play in even the most trying of circumstances and his presence alongside his partners at the back undoubtedly improved their performances. Stephen Craigan would be testament to this.

The colossal displays he produced in the victories over England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark between 2005 and 2008 were always mirrored by the incredible pride he had in the jersey and in the armband he wore with distinction. He led his men in those games with authority, bravery and the utmost decorum.

Perhaps, after all those magical moments in a green shirt, he became embarrassed by the 2010 and 2012 qualifying campaigns, disillusioned by what was unfolding within the international scene.

He was still a Premier League footballer, had just starred in a Europa League Final and Northern Ireland were seriously lacking overall leadership and guidance - something he couldn't provide as a humble skipper.

But he was not one to mudsling.

Rather, he simply walked away with good grace, offering the opinion it was time for him to take a back seat and for someone else to be given the opportunity.

Of course, he came back just a few months later, re-energised by O'Neill's vision and enthusiasm.

Within four years, Northern Ireland's sensational turnaround was complete when they qualified in style and appeared at their first ever European Championship finals.

Hughes also received a deserving personal accolade when, just a week prior to the start of the finals - and ironically in a friendly against Slovakia, the side he made his international debut against - he became just Northern Ireland's third centurion but, in his typical style, he preferred the achievement to be underplayed with the focus very much on the team.

Despite being 36, the Cookstown native's versatility at being able to play right-back was a major component of Northern Ireland's success.

Defeating Ukraine in Lyon on a Thursday evening in June when the hailstorms raged down will live long in the memory as Northern Ireland knocked the eastern Europeans out cold.

Two years later, and with Hughes sacrificing a great deal to travel the globe with Melbourne City and Kerala Blasters to make sure he was afforded the club action he required to be fit and ready for Northern Ireland, O'Neill's men nearly made it to their first World Cup finals in over 30 years, only to be denied by a controversial refereeing decision.

O'Neill yet again entrusted Hughes at right-back in one of the biggest and most significant games of his tenure. The veteran defender once again defied the years, along with Gareth McAuley, and gave a virtuoso performance.

The World Cup disappointment wasn't the end for Hughes, who moved back to the UK to play for Hearts in the Scottish Premiership.

His final Northern Ireland appearance, the last of 112 caps, came in the midday sun of Costa Rica, when the locals enjoyed a 3-0 victory in their farewell match before the World Cup in Russia.

Prior to that game, the 'interview' from the hotel bistro in Panama was rescheduled in the bar of the team hotel in San Jose.

There was no sign of indignation as Hughes gave of his time freely - an interview proposed to last 12 minutes ended up going on for a good half hour, such was the fascinating insight he was willing to account for.

Open and honest as ever, Hughes discussed the aches and pains he continually feels each morning, the lack of hunger and desire which was creeping into his attitude, a fear that he would be letting his team-mates down and why he may stay on for another year because his daughter Keira enjoyed the social aspect of going to the games and seeing her daddy in action.

It was worth the wait.

Ultimately, he allowed his daughter to have her way - he played seven times for Hearts last season and boss O'Neill still made sure he selected him for his international squads when he was injury-free.

But as he approaches his 40th birthday in November, Hughes deserves a rest.

After 21 years as a pro footballer, he no longer has to fear the end of June being the start of the dreaded pre-season training.

And with the time being his own, he can have as many unscheduled, unprompted and unnecessary conversations as he likes.

Happy retirement Aaron Hughes - a true Northern Ireland legend.

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