Had the referee blown a couple of seconds earlier, or had the ball not rolled a couple of inches further, then it would have been the perfect end to a terrific seven days for Hearts and their veteran centre-back Aaron Hughes.
The 38-year-old had played his part the previous Sunday as Craig Levein’s men halted Hibs’ three-and-a-half-year unbeaten streak in Edinburgh derbies. The very next day, he was given another tremendous boost as news emerged that Michael O’Neill had decided against jumping ship to Scotland and would remain as his international manager with Northern Ireland.
Rested for the successful midweek trip to Hamilton, Hughes was restored to the starting XI for Saturday’s meeting with Motherwell. Leading through a David Milinkovic goal, he and his team-mates were so close to recording a ninth successive clean sheet, a run which extended back to early December when Motherwell last came to town, until disaster struck five minutes into time added on.
Curtis Main was in the right place to nod the ball over the line after Chris Cadden’s shot in a packed penalty area had deflected into the striker’s path off Connor Randall.
“It’s disappointing to lose a goal so late. It has that feeling as if you have almost lost the game,” said Hughes. “We very quickly have to move on and learn from that last five minutes to make sure we see games out.”
It’ll be unlikely that Hughes will remain in the side for Tuesday’s trip to Celtic Park. The experienced stopper doesn’t tend to play two games in the space of the week; a decision typically taken by the management staff due to the player’s advancing years and his injury troubles throughout this campaign.
With those difficulties, and his contract expiring in the summer, the 109-cap defender knows he’s got a big decision to make in the near future regarding both his club and international career.
“I still haven’t decided. I’ll see how my body and mind feels at the end of the season. There’s lot of other factors involved apart from just me saying I want to keep playing,” Hughes revealed.
“With the stop-start season I’ve had with my calves I just wanted to concentrate on Hearts and getting a bit of momentum here.”
On O’Neill’s decision, he added: “You just look at the effect he’s had. It’s not just what you see either, it’s all the little things behind the scenes.
“He’s made it more like a club environment, tidying up the loose ends like getting the best facilities, making sure the food at the hotel is the best it can be, all those little things away from the pitch that make all the difference. The players who play in the Premier League are used to a certain standard and he tried to make it what they are used to when they come away at international level.
“He doesn’t want them to feel it’s a step down. For some of the other lads they are getting exposure to what you’d expect at Premier League level – so they are getting a step up.”
For Saturday’s opponents Motherwell, the late equaliser extended their unbeaten run to three games. It may pale in comparison to the 12 racked up by their hosts, but for a team who failed to find victory in nine games before the winter break it’s proved to be a vital run. It rekindles hope of finishing in the top six following their dire December and the sale of Louis Moult.
“When you come into a new club you want to make your mark and I feel I’ve done that in my first few games,” said January signing Tom Aldred.
“I am surprised that the lads went through that spell but it happens in football. You go through sticky periods and it’s important that you come out the other end of it.”