To wonder whether Alan Hutton is feeling weary after a season that not only stretched into mid-June but also included an FA Cup final is to forget how recently he was left frustrated by inactivity. It’s a past he is still running to escape from.
The Scotland right-back is gearing up for a last appointment of season 2014/15 against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. It is his 39th game in a campaign that began with his return to the Aston Villa first team at Stoke in August and reached its domestic climax at Wembley at the end of last month.
A lot of the boys play against each other and you want the bragging rightsAlan Hutton
This is not quite at the Lionel Messi levels of industry – last Saturday’s Champions League final was the Barcelona player’s 60th appearance of a season that continues at the Copa America with Argentina. But not a bad return for someone who once consulted the international fixture list for notice of when he next expected to play. In the 2013/14 campaign he made only 17 appearances – 11 of them for Scotland.
Cast into the wilderness by Aston Villa due to contractual reasons, Hutton’s re-emergence and recent high-profile appearance in an FA Cup final is a testament to his character. Unfortunately, there was no happy tale to report from Wembley, where Hutton and his team-mates endured a testing evening against Arsenal, who ran out 4-0 winners.
Clearly Hutton is hoping for a very different outcome in this latest ‘cup final’ in Dublin tomorrow.
As he himself points out, these are slightly different circumstances. While few expected Villa to belie their league position – they finished one place above the relegation zone – and overcome Arsenal nearly two weeks ago, the clash with Ireland pitches two well-matched teams together. Because of this, Hutton reckons the atmosphere will be even “more intense”. Only two points separate the Group D rivals at present and, as at Wembley, there is a tremendous amount at stake.
While Villa were hoping to end a near 60-year FA Cup drought, Scotland aim to reach their first major finals since the World Cup in 1998.
“It definitely does feel different, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is certainly a little bit extra when it comes to the rivalry at international level,” said Hutton. “When you are playing England or Ireland, it definitely feels a bit different.
“It was definitely something special, the FA Cup final. Just to be part of it. But going into a game such as that, Villa were massive underdogs, it was a different kind of build-up, a different way of looking at things, how you need to stop them. But, in a game like this, it’ll be a great atmosphere. We’re very similar in terms of squads and players, so it’s more evenly balanced which makes it more intense.”
One of the players lining up against Hutton this weekend has returned from his own spell in the wilderness. Shay Given’s return to prominence is, perhaps, even more remarkable than Hutton’s own tale of perseverance due to the fact he turns 40 on his next birthday.
This time last year he was very much the back-up goalkeeper at Villa and was well into international retirement, having called it a day, apparently, after Euro 2012. But Roy Keane convinced him to reverse this decision during his short spell as assistant to erstwhile Villa manager Paul Lambert.
Now he is set for cap No 129 tomorrow after a season where he succeeded in ousting long-time No 1 Brad Guzan. The heavy FA Cup final defeat notwithstanding, both he and Hutton have reason to smile again ahead of this weekend’s crunch match. “I’ve had a bit of banter with Shay,” said Hutton. “There’s been a bit of talk because it’s such a big game.
“Shay has been brilliant and it shows how professional he has been,” he added, with reference to Given’s own resurgence. “To not be playing for so long and still train so hard to get back in, is a great credit to him.
“Shay is a joker. Some people maybe look at him and think he’s the oldest guy in the team and would be serious. But Shay is 39 going on 12. He’s always up to something and he’s good to have about. We all get on well and the boys know he’s a bit of a prankster.”
Given’s japes might be old school, but they have helped brighten up life at a club forced to battle against relegation for successive seasons. “His best prank was one he did to Fabian Delph two years ago,” said Hutton. “He did something to Shay’s toilet bag so Shay put a fish in his car. Fab went away for the summer and was wondering what the smell was. Then one day he found this fish in his car and realised what Shay had done. He does daft things like that all the time – he’s a big kid and he likes a joke.”
The larking around will be put on hold in Dublin when the club team-mates meet again. Hutton knows no-one will be holding anything back. Being the last game of a long, hard season, there is no reason not to leave everything out on the field during the 90 minutes.
Hutton is determined Scotland leave Ireland “with something”, be it a draw, or, preferably, a victory that will make life difficult for their opponents to progress to the finals. As much as Hutton is fond of Given, he hopes this is indeed the outcome.
“We know what is at stake and we want to do well,” he said. “A lot of the boys play against each other and you want the bragging rights. This game will be no different. It won’t be anything over the top – we just want to win.”