It should be a good time to be a centre-half at Hearts. But a frustrated Aaron Hughes has looked on from the bench for the most part as the Tynecastle side consolidate their reputation for having the meanest defence in the league.
Only Celtic have come close to the five successive clean sheets recorded by Craig Levein’s side over recent weeks. But the champions’ claims to have an impregnable rearguard were rather blown away recently when Hearts put four goals past Craig Gordon without reply.
Rivals Hibernian are the latest side to struggle to breach the Gorgie Iron Curtain. Hughes made his latest comeback from injury in the second half of Wednesday’s stalemate having been an unused substitute against Celtic and St Johnstone and helped keep the sequence of shutouts intact.
The veteran defender admitted he was conscious of what people might deduce had his re-appearance coincided with the concession of a goal – or more – in such a high-profile game.
Hughes was replaced at half-time against Ross County last month after further problems with a persistent calf injury. While this match finished 0-0 he sat out the sequence of four games in which Hearts avoided conceding a goal before returning as a replacement for Connor Randall during the clash with Hibs.
As a centre-half whose doctrine is the first basic tenet of defending – thou shalt not pass – Hughes has savoured Hearts’ recent run, admiring the growing understanding developing between the Tynecastle triangle of goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and centre-halves Jon Souttar and skipper Christophe Berra.
Of course, such a settled and currently successful formula at the back makes it tougher for Hughes to re-claim his place in the side. He came on at right-back on Wednesday night so this is another option for him. But at present there is not a better centre-half partnership in the country than Souttar and Berra, with some venturing whether they might replicate their form together for Scotland.
“It’s something that is coming together,” said Hughes. “John Souttar was outstanding and did everything really well and Christophe is very reliable. I’m happy to see it. [But] it’s hard as you want to separate the two.
“They have been great the last few weeks and it’s a solid three with Jon behind them,” he added, with reference to the in-form goalkeeper. “The more games and confidence you get from good results helps and when you get clean sheets you want to keep that going. It gives everyone an incentive to keep going.”
Hughes is alert to the conclusions people jump to when he is out for any period of time. At his age, every ailment threatens to be career ending. Even manager Levein, when responding to a query about Hughes’ latest injury prognosis prior to a recent game against Dundee, said: “well, he is 38…” The inference was time is now a finite concept for Hughes in terms of his playing career.
But Hughes has not played 109 times for his country, coming back from a brief retirement to star for Northern Ireland in a major finals, by lacking determination. He is contracted to Hearts until the summer having signed a contract extension last year. The defender hopes to make a significant contribution to the second half of the season to ease doubts about his age and fitness.
“It’s frustrating but I keep battling away and try to do as much as possible,” he said. “I played about eight or nine games on the bounce when I came and it’s about being consistent now and getting that time again. I just had to work in training and be as ready as I can be for occasions like a derby.”
He admits a break is probably the last thing he needs, with the top flight heading into a winter shutdown after Hearts’ trip to Aberdeen tomorrow. But he was looking on the bright side.
“It’s maybe good for the mind as it is for the body not to have the pressure of a game coming up,” he said. “You can go into the week of training and load up without having to worry about being ready for the game.
“The training is easy – it’s more the mental side of keeping going,” he added.
“Over the break that we have I dare say I’ll do a little bit but because I don’t need to be ready for a Saturday it might be [a bit more] enjoyable!” Not that things will get any easier in their first game after the break when Hibs visit Tynecastle again in a Scottish Cup fourth round tie.
“It’s something to look forward to,” said Hughes. “This derby was lively and fiery and that’s the type of fixture it is.
“The break is for lads who need to switch off for a week and not worry about games. We can come back in and be ready to go again.”