Aaron Hughes, squad number 18 and a huge dressing-room presence, recently left the Northern Ireland squad for the last time. A player from 1998, former captain and at present holder of the most caps (112) ever garnered by a Northern Ireland outfield player. 21 seasons of green service! The tributes, spanning quite an age range from present and ex-colleagues aptly illustrated the size of that presence. Although his last cap was on the Central American tour the previous summer, the impact of his departure from the Northern Ireland camp in general, and the dressing room, in particular, will be huge.
But in a type of osmotic cryogenics Michael O’Neill has ensured that his class, professionalism and leadership has been preserved to carry the current squad successfully forward. Aaron has been around the NI squad for the last year without playing. The manager knows that his influence around the squad is as important as any goal-line clearance.
It is testament to both that they recognised the quality in each other. It can be argued it was the most important thing O’Neill did in reversing Aaron’s then retirement in 2011. When it was clear the 2018/19 season would be Aaron’s last season, O’Neill reignited that particular type of project by keeping him involved. Now that he is going, that baton may well be handed onto Gareth McAuley. We can come back to time, place and impact.
I wonder if Aaron Hughes considers his 20 odd years of playing in the NI team as a form of famine and plenty. There might be a slight stretch to that but to a degree, his first period with the team, (shall we say 1998-2004) was bordering between fallow and full-on famine if you consider the goal drought between 2002-2004.
He may well then consider the gold rush of the Healy years as reward for the previous six. The hard years it could be argued raised their head again from maybe 2009-2013, only for the new incoming manager to restore him and his morale from retirement to heights he would never have believed in the continuing O’ Neill administration.
The details of Aaron’s career have been well covered in many other fora. He had a steady and interesting club career and would have absorbed much from various managers including Kenny Dalglish, Bobby Robson, Roy Hodgson and Harry Redknapp just to name a few. I admired his thirst for new horizons with clubs in India and Australia, both in a footballing and cultural sense. Underlying that though was his willingness to fly across the globe to be available for Northern Ireland even though he knew he was unlikely to get a game. There you have it – it was never about him… rather what he could do to help Northern Ireland.
But in these moments as I look back over his time in green what stays in my head? I remember his embodiment of Kipling’s ‘If’. He was as steady in defeat as in victory – just what you want in a leader. He was captain from 2002-2011 and in those years he had plenty of opportunities to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The dignity and class never slipped.
There were times I really felt for him. Standing in front of the cameras after miserable home defeats to Spain (0-5), Armenia (0-1), Canada (0-1) and Finland (0-1) stand out. Sometimes you wondered how many times has he to do this trying to explain some abject misery. Oddly, that mantle seemed to pass on to the Ulster rugby captain, Rory Best who seems to have suffered for ever.
But that was all equalised captaining the team to those famous English and Spanish nights in the noughties amongst a few others. Who will forget his patched head as he insisted on playing in the Spanish game after injury against Iceland the previous Saturday?
On the pitch, he kept order in the Northern Ireland scullery for twenty years. That’s the footballing equivalent of raising a family. If you go with that look at some of the ‘sons’ he can be proud of; sons who have become NI footballing royalty on and off the pitch… Chris Baird, Stephen Craigan, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt. Evans and Cathcart are still serving front of house but all are the better for his stewardship.
Two images will always stay with me of Aaron on the pitch. In the England game at Windsor, his shadowing of Shaun Wright-Phillips as he approached the Kop end penalty-area with speed and menace was a thing to behold.
Matching him for pace and feint, the steady holding of Hughes eventually forced the winger’s hand. Diving in would have been suicide. It was as good a defensive education as you will see. It had the hallmarks of Wallace’s men as Edward’s horses charged towards the pikes in Braveheart. Gradually the gap between them narrowed as Phillips realised he had run out of options and Hughes’ foot gently closed the danger as the now tame shot was neutralised. Majestic, unflustered, coldly effective. He wasn’t just a nice guy. He shut down danger, year in year out.
The other memory I have is better known. At the end of the epic defeat of Ukraine in the Euros in June 2016, he simply flopped to the ground, arms on the pitch, head in the earth. He was spent with the emotion of what the result meant for his country. Eighteen years after his debut he knew better than anybody there. He hadn’t probably expected to play either but when you see cool, stable characters like him infused by such moments you know what it means. He had spent many a time on his knees in defeat – no man better deserved to be on his knees in glory.
The tributes to him were proper Genesis to Revelation. Words from solid hombres like Alan Shearer carry weight. The one from Rob Lee was not your everyday. He talked of how they started their careers together at Newcastle, and how Hughes finished his with Lee’s son at Hearts. The messages from the likes of international squad youngsters Bobby Burns and Daniel Ballard told you so much about him. The veteran who gives and helps those far below him will always have fibre and marrow at full stretch.
He is now the sixth most capped home international footballer; for three more months anyway as Steve Davis closes. I mentioned time, place and impact earlier. He made his debut in the highest of footballing temples – Camp Nou in Barcelona. If that was a physical spot, he left football in the highest of places too – a place full of respect and admiration from managers, players and fans.