It says much about Aaron Hughes’ longevity as a footballer that Euro 2016, when Northern Ireland reached the second round of a major finals in an achievement that should have established Michael O’Neill as one of the world’s best managers, didn’t prove to be his swansong. The longest serving member of the green and white army is preparing for tomorrow night’s crunch World Cup qualifying play-off first leg against Denmark – having made his international debut some nineteen years ago under Lawrie McMenemy – and, such is his modesty and professionalism, Hughes will have given little thought to how he might mark his 38th birthday.
The man from Magherafelt came into the Northern Irish side ahead of a 1-0 win over Slovakia at Windsor Park, having already lined up for the under 16, under 18 and B sides and felt little pressure at making his international debut, which came hot on the heels of first senior appearance for Newcastle United when he replaced former Fulham defender Philippe Albert at half-time during their Champions’ League group stage clash with Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Hughes didn’t become a regular until Bobby Robson had replaced Ruud Gullit, firmly establishing himself in the Newcastle first team at the turn of the millennium.
He had made more than 250 Premier League appearances to his name when Lawrie Sanchez, who had taken Northern Ireland close to qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with famous wins over England, Spain and Sweden in Belfast, reunited Hughes with his compatriots David Healy, Chris Baird and Steven Davis at club level after succeeding Chris Coleman at Craven Cottage. Hughes wasn’t the only one to endure a tough start to his career with his new club as Fulham flirted with the drop zone – and even his phenomenally successful partnership with Norwegian gentle giant Brede Hangeland, drafted in by Roy Hodgson as he sought to plug the gaps in the Fulham back four, didn’t hit the ground running immediately.
The pair kept a clean sheet on Hangeland’s debut in a dour midweek draw at Bolton Wanders before the Whites shrugged off the setback of a Hughes own goal against his old club Aston Villa to record their first league win under Hodgson thanks to late goals from Simon Davies and a splendid injury-time free kick from the returning Jimmy Bullard. Hughes was part of the back four that kept critical clean sheets during the Great Escape run-in against Everton, when Brian McBride’s bullet header was enough for three points, in Fulham’s first away win for 18 months at Reading, and vitally in those two nerve-shredding finales against Birmingham and at Fratton Park.
Beating the drop with the odds stacked again us was thrilling enough but, under Hodgson’s astute leadership, that was just the beginning. Hughes was a key component of the side that achieved Fulham’s highest ever top flight finish of seventh the following year, conceding just 34 goals in 38 games and qualifying for Europe. The Whites kept clean sheets against Arsenal (twice), Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and Newcastle that year and Hughes was an ever-present in a remarkable league campaign that saw Hodgson’s side cement Craven Cottage as a real fortress.
His performances during that famous run to the Europa League final in Hamburg the following year were the stuff of legend, especially as Fulham’s belief grew during the competition that they could do something special. He was outstanding in the home draw with Roma, when the Whites were only denied a famous victory at the very last, and marshalled the defence impeccably in those two vital wins against CSKA Sofia and, then, during a see-saw game in the snow in Basel that secured Fulham’s qualification for the knockout phase against all the odds.
Hughes stood firm in Donetsk as defending champions Shakhtar threw everything at Hodgson’s side in a bid to overturn the advantage which Hangeland extended with an early header in Ukraine. It was a defensive masterclass that nullified one of the best sides I’d ever seen at Craven Cottage through sheer hard graft and magnificent reading of the game – an evening that encapsulated Hughes’ own positional sense that remains second to none even to this day. The Cookstown native was outstanding again in Germany as the Whites moved past Wolfsburg to reach the semi-finals and produced a commanding display in Hamburg to set up that famous night at the Cottage when the late comeback completed by Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera knocked out the hosts of the final.
Hughes played a total of 59 games during that extraordinary season and so telepathic was the outstanding between he and Hangeland that it came as a huge surprise when, after Mark Hughes had steered Fulham into European competition again during his solitary season in charge, Martin Jol opted to break Fulham’s own miserly Thames Barrier to accommodate firstly Philippe Senderos and then Fernando Amorebieta. As is so often the case in modern football, Hughes was never afforded the send off his seven years of sterling service deserved when he opted to join QPR on a free transfer in January 2014. It was no coincidence that Fulham’s defensive solidity evaporated after his departure – arguably only to return in the second half of last season.
The mere numbers or those select few memories don’t do justice to Hughes’ contributions at Craven Cottage. As a humble and thoughtful football, who has done his bit to build the beautiful game in different parts of the world – he credited his former Fulham team-mate Damien Duff with persuading him to come to the A-League for a year with Melbourne City, which was followed by a season at Kerala Blasters as their marquee player. Hughes helped the Kochi outfit reach the final of the Indian super league, where they were beaten on penalties at home in a side cruelly named Atletico de Kolkata.
It would be fitting were one of the game’s great ambassadors be able to call time on his career in Russia next summer after getting to a successful successive major tournament finals with O’Neill’s Northern Ireland. Football doesn’t often afford much time for sentiment but Hughes’ remarkable career deserves noting. He’ll always have a special place in the hearts of the Fulham family. Happy birthday, Aaron.