Aaron Hughes has only been to Celtic Park for a pre-season friendly but that generated enough of an atmosphere to whet his appetite. Heading back to the east end of Glasgow with new employers Hearts this afternoon, the Northern Ireland defender expects the vibe to be even more memorable.
“That [last visit] was years ago, with Newcastle. Even in a friendly, the atmosphere was fantastic. Well, I thought it was anyway. So, no doubt, in a competitive game like this Sunday, it will be even better.
“Knowing those games are there was probably a small part of the reason [I signed for Hearts] and the atmosphere will, I’m sure, be fantastic. It will be a tough game for us, a big test, but in terms of that challenge, that’s something to look forward to.
“It would be hard not to [look forward to the game], with the sense of occasion and the atmosphere and playing in a big stadium. It is something I think every player looks forward to, regardless of where you have been in the game, what you’ve done and what stage your career is at. Hopefully I can enjoy the experience because of my age and the stage I’m at in my career. Because of all the pressure and the excitement and the nature of the game, sometimes you don’t actually get the chance to enjoy being there, but, for me, I think I will enjoy it a little bit more than maybe I did when I was younger because I know that there may not be too many games like this left so I will try to enjoy it while I’m there.”
Celtic remain unbeaten on the domestic front and the Gorgie players are the latest to try to end that run. But they enter the fray on the back of a testing Scottish Cup tie, with Championship Raith Rovers taking them to extra-time in the replay, before the Tynecastle team were able to strike a decisive blow.
That served as just their second win in seven matches under manager Ian Cathro, who has been active in the transfer market in the hope that he can turn things around and win over the Hearts supporters. Hughes is just one of the new arrivals, whose presence has generated a new-look back line that will need to be far steadier and show a greater degree of impenetrability than was evident in their first couple of outings when they take on the attacking might of their hosts at Celtic Park
But, at 37, and having played against the biggest and best in England on their own patch, tackled Barcelona at the Nou Camp on more than one occasion, including his professional debut, aged 17, for Newcastle, and added the experience of the summer’s European Championships, neither the thought of being an underdog nor the prospect of stepping out on to the Parkhead stage frightens Hughes.
“I always loved going to Anfield. There was always something special about it. Even the big stadiums like Old Trafford and the Emirates, places like that, there was still just something about Anfield, there was a special buzz about it that I enjoyed.
“Then in the summer, the Euros, I think that tops everything. The atmosphere there and the big stadiums. I could name loads. I was lucky enough to play in the Nou Camp as well, against Barça, that is a big atmosphere, a big stadium. The stadium is already big but when you come out the steps, it really does just keep going up and up and you remember places like that I guess.
“But I will look forward to the challenge of it. I will try to enjoy the challenge rather than being a little bit daunted. I am past the stage of getting worried. I want to enjoy the challenge, come what may. I want to be able to look back on it afterwards and know that we had a real good go. How the game turns out, that’s how it turns out.”
He’s on nodding terms with Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers – “being from back home, most people say hello and there is a familiarity there. It’s the sort of thing you get when people come from the same country” – and he has come up against him before, playing against his Liverpool and Swansea teams, while his time in English football means he is also familiar with Celtic attacker Scott Sinclair and he knows to be wary.
“That’s the thing with Celtic, they have players like him who can, for all their good play, and team shape and build up and all that, they have players too who are capable of individual brilliance and who can change a game. Teams can go there and maybe defend against them and make it difficult but they still have that extra option of one or two players who can do that. He is just one example and he has shown that this season.”