Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v San Marino: Aaron Hughes savouring his Indian summer

N Ireland v San Marino, World Cup Qualifying Group C: Windsor Park, Saturday, 7.45pm

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes thought he had seen it all. He had played for almost 20 years in English football, won over 100 Northern Ireland caps, loved the experience of representing his country at the Euro 2016 finals and had a spell in Australia in the autumn of his career.

Then he decided to join Indian Super League club Kerala Blasters, who made him their captain.

The move to prolong the 36-year-old's playing life surprised many, but that's nothing compared to the shocks Hughes has encountered in his new surroundings.

The former Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Fulham star smiles as he tells stories, scarcely believing them himself.

Speaking at the Northern Ireland training camp in Dublin, ahead of Saturday's World Cup qualifier at home to San Marino, Hughes said: "The lifestyle is a totally different world. I've seen some amazing things both good and bad; things I never thought I'd see.

"The cities are so diverse. Calcutta for instance is so noisy and busy with people on top of each other on crammed buses... then there's the old beat up taxis..."

He pauses for a moment, recollecting the day he travelled in one of those 'old beat up taxis'. He said: "The experience of getting in a taxi without an MOT... a taxi which has probably never seen an MOT... and the unique smell. You would have to experience it yourself.

"The sights and sounds are all part of the experience. You can get an Uber that is air conditioned and it is a bit nicer but you won't get the experience. I'd rather get the old beat up cab and the experience, and seeing all the hustle and bustle, the stalls and street food.

"We went to Ghabi to play a game and it is a lot greener and not as busy. There is just one main road and everyone uses it. If you are walking to school you use it, lorries use it, if you are pulling a cart you use it, animals use it and the cow is worshipped there.

"It is a sacred animal so it does what it wants. It could be lying in the middle of the road. No one moves it, you drive around it. There are no real rules on the road.

"That is the way of life and within the chaos it is just normal and everyone gets on with it.

"You also have some of the nicest people you have ever met. They are so respectful.

"I'm there for the football but after it when I look back I think it will be one of the best experiences of my life."

So, what about the football? Not only does Hughes have his time in England to compare it to, but also playing for Melbourne City in Australia.

"The standard is not bad," said Hughes, who lives in a hotel along with his team-mates. "It is a country that is on the up. That's the whole point of the Super League. They really want to make a go of it. Technically they are quite good. They maybe just lack a bit of experience and game know-how but if they keep going the way they are going, it will improve.

"Cricket is massive over there but there is a lot of excitement surrounding the football.

"We have 60,000 at every home game and I'm told we have the biggest, craziest and vocal fans. They open the gates four hours before our games and the fans pack the stadium.

"That attracted me. Having played in the Euros it is great to play in front of those big crowds again. The football is slightly different but you still get a kick out of playing in front of 60,000."

With the Indian Super League just started and lasting for three months, Hughes could well return to England in the January transfer window.

This week, though, his focus is all on Northern Ireland. If Michael O'Neill calls on him against San Marino, the veteran won't let the side down.

Belfast Telegraph


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