When the Northern Ireland internationalist, the most-capped British defender in history with 100 appearances for his country, steps on to Rugby Park’s synthetic turf this afternoon, it may mark his farewell appearance in club football.
At 38, barring the odd niggling injury and a few mornings spent feeling like the Tin Man, he is a picture of physical fitness. But the mental rigours of another gruelling campaign are another matter entirely. Hughes travels to Panama and Costa Rica on international duty next month before making a final call on whether to sign the one-year extension on the table at Tynecastle. “Mentally, I need a bit of a break to weigh things up, but no decision has been made,” explained Hughes, pictured. “I just need to take some time to decide and make sure that if I come back, I’m fully committed.
“It’s a decision about my entire future [as a player]. It’s not a matter of looking elsewhere. It’s not a case of seeing if the grass is greener, I’m just at an age where I need to be sure that – whatever decision I make – it’s the right call for me.
“I obviously don’t want to walk away from the game and think ‘I should have gone another year’, likewise I don’t want to commit to something and realise I can’t maintain the standards I expect of myself. That’s the tough side of it, the mental challenge to keep going, day in, day out. It’s not really a decision I’ll be making on the back of how my body feels, it’s more about where my head is.”
He added: “The gaffer [Craig Levein] has been great with me, said I didn’t have to rush a decision and I could take my time, and right at the end of a long season isn’t the right time to make such a big decision.”
Levein has made no secret of his desire to secure the services of Hughes for another campaign, citing an invaluable combination of reliability, versatility and vast experience to pass on to the next generation at Tynecastle.
An old-school, modest sort, Hughes shies away from the notion of himself as a shining light to the kids. Yet he is happy to quietly lead by example, much as Alan Shearer, Rob Lee and the late Gary Speed did for him at Newcastle. “I’m not really a shouter in training,” he recalled of his days in the youth ranks at St James’ Park. “I learned from the senior lads at Newcastle just by watching how they trained. The standards they set, the levels of performance, consistently, day in, day out. You’re talking Rob Lee, Alan Shearer, Gary Speed, Steve Howey. Some big characters. When you joined in training there, they set standards that you had to meet. There was no arm round your shoulder; you just had to meet them.
“They were open if you wanted to pick their brains about stuff but I learned the most just by trying to emulate them. If I focus on myself and maintain standards, hopefully that’s how the young lads here learn.”
Of those Riccarton graduates, Harry Cochrane, 17, is the jewel in the crown. A man-of-the-match showing in Wednesday’s Edinburgh derby triumph against Hibs was the latest feat in a remarkable breakthrough campaign which included netting the opening goal when Hearts ended Celtic’s 69-game domestic unbeaten run earlier this term.
“Harry is probably the one that everyone looks at coming through,” added Hughes. “Against Hibs – in another big game, where it’s very easy to get carried away and let your technical side suffer – he showed great temperament. I’d be very shocked if he wasn’t a Scotland international in the future.”