Let’s hear it for Aaron Hughes. One of the nicest guys to grace a Fulham shirt and the kind of Premier League footballer you won’t read about in your newspaper too often. Too grounded to make the tabloid spots reserved for misbehaving muppets but equally not celebrated enough to be lauded by the broadsheets. You get the sense that the understated centre half likes it that way: his focus on the pitch is entirely on the game in progress and he seems a fairly shy interviewee.
Hughes, born in Cookstown, County Tyrone, is one that got away from Newcastle United. As the Toon were having their defensive crisis that saw them relegated from the top flight last season, plenty of people were wondering why one of the most assured defenders the club has produced in recent years were helping Fulham have a historic season. Always highly rated, Hughes graduated from youth-team trainee to first team regular fairly swiftly. It was a measure of the confidence that Kenny Dalglish had in the youngster that Hughes made his debut for Newcastle in the rarefied atmosphere of the Nou Camp in November 1997, becoming the club’s youngest European debutant (until Andy Carroll broke the record in 2006).
Hughes only really established himself in the Newcastle side under Bobby Robson in the 1999-2000 season. It was a memorable season for the club and Hughes as the Magpies made it to an FA Cup semi-final, where they were beaten by Chelsea. Hughes played in another FA Cup semi-final and a UEFA Cup semi-final as well before being allowed to leave St. James’ Park for £1m in May 2005 by Graeme Souness.
His new home proved to be Aston Villa, where he quickly established himself as a willing and capable defender but never really held down a regular first-team place at Villa Park. Hughes made 54 appearances for Villa but struggled to usurp a surfeit of highly-regarded centre backs. As his international career went from strength to strength – Hughes was made national team skipper by Lawrie Sanchez – he jumped at the chance of joining Sanchez at Fulham when the former Northern Ireland boss succeeded Chris Coleman at Craven Cottage on a permanent basis.
Plenty of people worried about Hughes’ vulnerability in the air and, like a good number of Sanchez signings, he struggled to settle as Fulham slid alarmingly down the Premier League table. He scored an own goal against his former side Aston Villa in the game that suggested an upturn in Fulham’s fortunates under the guidance of Roy Hodgson. He seemed much more at home with the bigger Brede Hangeland alongside him in the Whites defence and the pair forged a successful partnership that underpinned Fulham’s remarkable resurgence.
At times in the last couple of years, Hughes has seemed to be on the same wavelength as opposition centre forwards, so often has he arrived to thwart an attack with a perfectly timed sliding challenge or interception. Hughes does everything with an air of assurance, looking permanently unruffled and that confidence seems to have transmitted itself to the other members of the Fulham backline.
His distribution from the back is a particularly underrated quality as is his positioning. His strong performances have been a large part of the reason why Fulham have progressed so impressively in the Europa League this season and perhaps the biggest compliment Hodgson could pay to the importance of the Northern Ireland skipper is that he felt comfortable enough to allow the gifted Chris Smalling to move onto Manchester United safe in the knowledge that Fulham’s miserly defence would cope in his absence.
Hughes looks as if he’s really enjoying his football at Fulham. Of course, he’d like to lead his country at a major tournament – having come very close to taking Northern Ireland to finals on two seperate ocassions. Hughes will pass a hundred league appearances either at Liverpool on Sunday or against Wolves at the Cottage next weekend. Let’s hope the criminally underrated member of Fulham’s back four remains indispensible for many years to come.