All being well, Aaron Hughes will make his 400th Premier League appearance later on today. He’s one of the more understated top flight footballers and, while the media attention may fall more regularly on the other rock at the heart of our defence, Fulham fans are in no doubt as to the importance of the modest man from Cookstown. The Northern Ireland skipper goes about his business in his typically calm, understated way that his outstanding performances could go unnoticed. But his positioning, exquisite timing in the tackling and footballing intelligent are some of the main reasons why Fulham have retained such impressive defensive records under both Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes.
Hughes was a successful youth footballer, having joined Portadown boys and training with the Manchester United School of Excellence every week in Belfast. He was spotted by Newcastle whilst playing for the Boys Brigade team in the Milk Cup and his father was asked if he would like to come to the north east for a trial. Hughes signed for Newcastle in his last year at school and was travelling across to the north east of England to play for their youth sides every week. Having risen through the youth ranks and had made an impression on manager Kenny Dalglish during pre-season ahead of the 1997-98 and was included in the squad for Newcastle’s trip to Barcelona, but wasn’t expecting to get a game until Phillipe Albert, who would later play a part in Fulham’s promotion from the Second Division, got injured and had to replaced at half-time.
I didn’t have any time to think about it, I just had to go on and play my normal game. It was pretty special and something I will be able to look back on in years to come.
Making my debut against one of the most famous clubs in the world in one of the most famous stadiums in football in a Champions League game. That doesn’t happen too often in football!
Hughes made his Premier League debut later that season against Sheffield Wednesday. The late, great Sir Bobby Robson takes up the story in his autobiography:
I recall going to see Hughes, who was only a kid at the time. John Carver and Steve Clarke had told me he was a shy boy of nineteen or twenty who wouldn’t impose his authority on the pitch as perhaps he should, but who was a very astute reader of the game.
“Listen,” I told young Aaron. “We’ve got a choice. I’ve got a centre-half problem on Saturday. I can gamble, throw you in, see how we go, or I’ve got a chance of bringing in Colin Hendry. How do you feel about it?”
“Well I’d like to play,” he said.
“I’m sure you would son. How’s your confidence? How do you feel? It’s a home match and the team’s not doing very well. Can you handle that pressure?”
In the end I told young Hughes, “I’m going to play you on Saturday. At Ipswich I developed the club by giving young players a chance. I’ve seen you a couple of times on the training ground and I like what I see. You’ve just got to be tougher, a bit more alert. Go out there with stacks of confidence and play with your courage.”
Aaron played extremely well and headed a goal from a cross by Kieron Dyer.
After a successful start to his Newcastle career, Hughes established himself as a regular member of the Newcastle defence. He was disappointed to be told by Graeme Souness, who was seeking to raise funds to rejuvenate the squad, that he didn’t have a future at St. James’ Park in the summer of 2005. He became a fixture in the Villa defence during two years at Villa Park, but was moved on by Martin O’Neill in 2007 – and jumped at the chance of teaming up with his then-national team manager at Fulham. At first, a few Fulham fans voiced concerns about the new signing, particularly as Fulham struggled to pick up points to pull away from the looming relegation battle in 2007-08.
But his partnership with the newly-arrived Hangeland was crucial to securing our Premier League status for another year and Hughes raised the bar in the following year as Fulham recorded their highest ever league finish and qualified for the Europa League. Few strikers during that memorable European run got the better of him and his presence on the teamsheet is a reassuring one. Martin Jol might have tried him at right back during our early European fixtures this year, but he’d be very foolish to break up such a solid central defensive partnership.
Hughes will doubtless be keen to impress against one of his former sides this afternoon. Last year, he turned in an exceptional performance at St. James’ Park to nullify the considerable threat of Andy Carroll, leaving many a seasoned hack to question why Newcastle had ever let him leave. He’ll need to use that often overlooked turn of pace to keep tabs on Gabriel Agbonlahor – who has scored three times against Fulham in recent years – but, given his quality, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t rise to the challenge. For a centre back, he also has an incredible disciplinary record, which speaks both to his professionalism and outstanding reading of the game. Let’s hope he continues to deliver superb displays at the back for many years to come.