Select Page

Happy birthday, Aaron Hughes

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.

Catch Aaron Hughes On This Week’s Cottage Talk Podcast

For those that follow Hammy End on Twitter (for those that don’t, do. Check us @HammyEnd) you will know that HammyEnders myself and Dan joined Russ Goldman and Kyle of Fulham’s Finest for a 90 minute show recapping Chelsea and previewing today’s game against Wigan.

It was made especially great thanks to an exclusive Cottage Talk interview with Fulham favourite Aaron Hughes. It is a great listen; he talks openly, honestly and at length about Fulham’s upturn in form, his return to international set up, the subject of fellow defender Matthew Briggs as well as covering much more.

You can listen to this week’s episode of Cottage Talk by clicking here.

Hughes targets strong finish

Fulham defender Aaron Hughes believes Fulham will finish strongly in what he predicts will be a tight end to the season.

The Cottagers lie 10th in the standings after Saturday’s last-gasp defeat at Aston Villa, which came after a three-match winning streak that propelled them up the table.

The result means just four points separate eighth-placed Sunderland and Villa in 15th spot, making it extremely difficult to predict where teams will end the season.

Hughes, though, is confident Fulham will finish the campaign well, starting with a return to winning ways when Swansea come to Craven Cottage on Saturday.

“It’s going to be quite tight because there’s a lot of teams around us now all bunched on similar points,” he told Fulham’s official website. “Each week maybe someone will jump ahead of someone else, then the next week they’ll be back down.

“I think if we can go on little runs like we have done, with two or three games where we gets wins, certainly don’t lose, then we’ve definitely got a good chance of finishing in a strong position in the league. Swansea’s confidence will be high [this weekend]. They’re known, a bit like us, for getting the ball down and passing it.

“They’re a good footballing side so it will be a good test for us. But at home this season we’ve done well and there’s no reason we can’t do well again on Saturday.”

Fulham’s recent upturn in fortunes has coincided with Hughes’ return to the Fulham starting line-up.

Manager Martin Jol has preferred to play Philippe Senderos alongside Brede Hangeland in central defence this season, although the Northern Ireland international has recently enjoyed a run of games in the back four.

Hughes missed the late defeat to former club Villa at the weekend due to a calf injury, but confirmed he is back in contention to face Swansea this weekend.

“I was disappointed to miss out last weekend but I’m fine now,” he said. “I had a minor problem which I was hoping wouldn’t stop me playing [against Aston Villa] but unfortunately I just missed out. I feel fine now, though. I did a little bit of work on Monday just to make sure I was okay and I trained fully on Tuesday so I’m fine.

“It was nice to be involved in that run. The team played really well and got three really, really good results so it’s always nice to come in and have that happen. On a personal note, it’s nice to just have a little run in the side and that’s why I was so disappointed to miss out at the weekend.”

Hughesy Out of International Retirement

Some excellent news coming out of the club today saying that Aaron Hughes has decided to come out of international retirement. Coming from Belfast I know only too well how good this is for my countrys national team. I sat behind the goal the night that Hughes scored his first goal for his country and I remember my brother saying after the game that, “It’ll be a bad day for Northern Irish football when Hughesy retires!”
His leadership qualities are excellent and they are vital for Micheal O’Neills new building process. He needs players like Hughes to be there to help the younger guys develop as international players. Now all O’Neill has to do is to try and convince youngsters such as James McClean of Sunderland to play for Northern Ireland rather than to opt to play for the Republic.

Jol on Hughes

The Sun carries Martin Jol’s little dig at ambitious Mark Hughes during the Fulham manager’s pre-match press conference:

It is not always about money if you are talking about ambition. We are ambitious but he said Fulham was not. That’s his opinion. We played in a European final and that’s not easy to achieve.

Jol also queried Hughes’ desire to build a legacy at QPR.

He is very brave to say that. If you look at all the clubs he has managed, it has been for two years at the most.