Aaron Hughes wasn’t allowed to dwell on Hearts’ Scottish Cup exit and feel sorry for himself. At the exact moment the huge maroon-clad contingent were slithering their way across the snowy environs of Fir Park to head back to Edinburgh, he was being asked about the next game and, given who the opponents are, he didn’t mind a bit.
“We have a big match coming up on Friday and we have to pick ourselves up quickly,” said the veteran defender of the capital derby at Hibernian. “We need to get up and running again and I think this is the perfect game for that. I’m actually looking forward to it even more after Sunday’s result.”
The 2-1 defeat by Motherwell dashed high hopes in Gorgie of reaching the semi-finals of the cup at least. The most depressed among the faithful might have concluded “season over”, but Hughes won’t hear of that. “If we can get any kind of positive result on Friday it can really pick us up and enable us to push on for the last nine games and finish as high as we can,” he reasoned.
Hibs may be nine points ahead of Hearts with a game in hand, but Hughes doesn’t see that as decisive. “There’s not an awful lot between three or four teams in that area right now, both results-wise and performances. A good couple of results can get you back within touching distance of the other teams or even allow you to leapfrog them. The derby is a great game to have after losing to Motherwell.”
An old hand at these localised skirmishes from his days at Newcastle United, he is far from blasé about the experience. “This derby is full of intensity,” he said. “It’s got all the pace and atmosphere and the feeling which lasts the whole 90 minutes – with the big crowd and all the noise you’re never going to get the chance to settle into the game.
“I’ve played against Hibs twice and those matches are fast and furious. They’re what derbies are all about and when you reflect on them you’ve loved the intensity. It will be nice to get back involved in all of that and a good result would give us a boost.”
Hearts made the worst possible start in the cup clash, losing a seventh-minute goal that baffled defender Hughes. A corner fired along the ground reached Motherwell striker Curtis Main after Ross Callachan, pictured, standing at the near post, declined to clear it and deceived goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin. “It was a strange goal to concede and and it was unfortunate that it happened in a game where it will be highlighted a lot,” Hughes added.
“I think Ross thought the ball was going out and he misjudged it. He’s a young boy and he’ll learn from that and I’m sure it won’t happen again.”
Hearts forced their way back into a fierce contest, improving on a poor first half by equalising through a Kyle Lafferty penalty shortly after the restart. “We all knew we could be a whole lot better and we spoke about that at half-time. In the second half we kept the ball more and were maybe unlucky not to get a second goal. Laff hit the post at 1-1 and we were right in the game – but then Motherwell scored.”
The rocket shot by the Steelman’s captain, Carl McHugh, was fit to win any game, which Hughes acknowledged. “It was a great finish. Jon managed to get a hand on it but just not enough. It was a fantastic strike and sometimes you just need to hold up your hands and admit that. It was worthy of winning a match of that importance.”
No one was more stunned by the winning goal than the scorer, with Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson remarking that he didn’t think he’d seen McHugh ever pass with his right foot, far less shoot. “I was surprised but obviously delighted it went in,” the skipper said. “The ball broke to me and sat up nice on my chest. I just thought, even on my right: ‘Why not?’ Then this mob of guys jumped on me! I was shouting at them to get off. Listen, these are the moments you play football for. They’re few and far between and you must enjoy them.”
McHugh is thrilled to be leading Motherwell to Hampden, though he must sit out the semi against Kilmarnock or Aberdeen as a booking on Sunday means he is suspended.
“I’m gutted about that but this is not about me, it’s about the boys,” he added. “Everything we do every day is as a group and I’m just delighted after the club reaching the final of the Betfred Cup that we’re going back to Hampden.”