Unsung Newcastle United hero – Aaron Hughes
A few months ago I started a series of articles looking at what I thought made up the greatest Newcastle United eleven of the Premier League era.
Featuring in this (my) team so far are Shay Given in goal, with then Jonathan Woodgate and Philippe Albert as two parts of my back three.
The other defender was more difficult to choose – let’s face it, we’ve hardly been blessed with huge numbers of outstanding defenders over the years – but the one I’ve plumped for over all the others was perhaps a surprising choice.
I have gone for Aaron Hughes.
Given that he left the club over 15 years ago, it would be quite easy to forget just what an outstanding and versatile player Hughes was during his time at St James Park, but he more than merits his selection.
Hughes featured sporadically for the team in his first two seasons as a first team squad player at the club, after making his debut as a half time substitute for Philippe Albert against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in 1997, also making an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final win against Tottenham Hotspur in 1999 under Ruud Gullit.
Reflecting on his debut in the incredible surroundings of the Nou Camp, with nufc.co.uk in 2019, Hughes said:
“It’s that long ago and I don’t remember that much about it. It’s nice to have on the CV and it’s nice when people say ‘oh, you made your debut at the Nou Camp’.
“The reality of it at the time was a little bit different because the stadium was half empty. Their fans had boycotted the game because Barcelona couldn’t qualify out of the group stages so they were making a bit of a protest.
“The reality maybe wasn’t as glamorous as the surroundings but it was my debut. It could have been anywhere and it would have been a special moment. I was immensely proud at the time.
“It was more so the surrealness of the stadium being half empty and it was a weird sort of atmosphere. Then you had all the Newcastle fans stuck way up in the rafters. For some reason, I can’t remember bits of the game at all but I remember is that scene if you like. That’s the one thing that stands out.
“Darren Peacock had gone off in the first half and Philippe then came off at half time for me to go on. It was five minutes to go before the restart and Kenny (Dalglish) at the time looked around and went ‘get your gear on, we’ll throw you on’.
“I didn’t have time to think about it. I remember walking out of the tunnel up onto the pitch to get out there for the second half. It was literally a couple of seconds and I have this image in my head of the Barcelona tunnel and making sure my shin pads were tucked down my socks properly!”
However, it was only once Bobby Robson was installed as manager that Hughes became a first team regular. Scoring his first goal for the club in the famous 8-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, Hughes would go on to become a key part of the success the team would enjoy over the next six seasons, making 278 appearances and scoring seven goals.
For some strange reason, that I’m sure myself and other Newcastle fans still struggle to comprehend, Graeme Souness saw fit to sell Aaron Hughes in 2005. At the time Hughes was 26 years old and seemingly about to come into the peak years of his career.
After leaving St James Park, Hughes would stay at Villa for two seasons, before moving on to Fulham, where he would enjoy a very successful spell. He played 250 times for the club and was a key component of the Roy Hodgson side that made it to the Europa League final in 2010.
He would then have short spells at QPR, Brighton and Hove Albion, Melbourne City, Kerala Blasters, before finishing his playing days at Hearts.
Alongside his achievements at club level, he was also a brilliant servant for his country Northern Ireland. Making his debut all the way back in 1998, he would captain the team from 2003 until retiring on 79 caps in 2011. However, he was persuaded out of international retirement by Michael O’Neill and would go on to play 112 times in total and play at Euro 2016.
As a player, he was probably most appreciated during his time at Newcastle for his ability to play anywhere across the back four. He could also do a job as a defensive midfielder as he did so spectacularly against Roma when he marshalled the outstanding Francesco Totti brilliantly. He was comfortable playing with both feet and was a brilliant reader of the game. He really was an excellent footballer who the club let go far too soon.
Looking back on his time at the club Hughes, said:
“I loved it! I didn’t realise how much I loved it, like everything until you go away and when you look back on it. I enjoyed it at the time – I was happy at the time.
“I think now just because it’s all been wrapped up, you get a chance to look back and reflect a little bit and realise how good it was and how much you enjoyed it.
“To be involved in that period when Sir Bobby was here and playing Champions League football – you can’t really ask for much more as a player so that hits home a bit more in how good it was.”
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