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"I loved it!" - Hughes reflects on United playing days

Written by Luke Vinton

From a teenage debut in the famous Camp Nou against Barcelona to retiring at the age of 39, former Newcastle United defender Aaron Hughes spoke to Newcastle United's official website to reflect on a career spanning 22 years, which included a memorable decade on Tyneside.

"It's a strange feeling to be back at St. James' Park!" says the Northern Irish defender, chatting in the Moncur Suite hours before United take on Brighton & Hove Albion. "I've only ever really been here to play football, both for Newcastle and when I played for an opposition team so I haven't actually been to the stadium to watch in this way - to actually watch a game or to be looking down on the pitch for a long time."

The centre-back, who hung up his boots last summer, joined United's youth ranks at the age of 15 before breaking into the team two years later where he would establish himself in the Magpies' first team squad under managers Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson.

"It's funny because I don't really think about being retired anymore," he recalls. "A few weeks ago, I was watching the Northern Ireland games and it hit home a little bit that I've finished after looking out onto the pitch."

Not many British players can boast a senior debut in the famous Camp Nou against European giants Barcelona but that's where Hughes first pulled on a Newcastle United shirt to make his first of 279 appearances for the Magpies.

On the bench for the Champions League clash against the Catalans during 1997, illness to Philippe Albert saw Hughes enter the action at half-time, becoming the club's then-youngest European appearance maker - 18 days after his 18th birthday.

"It's that long ago and I don't remember that much about it," the Northern Ireland international explains. "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 may be wasn't 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."

Hughes was tasked with defending against Brazilian striker Rivaldo along with playing against Pep Guardiola but it seemed the high-profile players did not faze the young debutant.

He said: "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!" 

The scene for Aaron Hughes' first team debut back in 1997

Following the high profile bow, Hughes held his own in a squad full of high-profile players for six seasons. But was there a favourite memory for him in the black and white jersey?

"Individually, there are a little moments like debuts and my first goal. My first game at St. James' was two weeks after my debut against Dynamo Kiev. That was pretty special - even a little bit more so as it was at St. James' Park.

"I think on a bigger level, playing Champions League football and winning games against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool but it is hard to pick one moment out of everything over that period of time where it was a reasonably successful spell for the club. 

"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."

As the Magpies take part in their 25th Premier League season this term, Hughes believes the current crop of players can succeed on the pitch although he admitted the competition has become far difficult than in his playing days.

"The Premier League has become a lot more competitive now," he said. "The margins now are so fine and before you could sort of predict the top seven or eight, the middle block and then the three or four teams who could go down.

"Nowadays, although you've got the two or three teams who will be competing at the top, anyone can stay up or go down. The squad that Newcastle have are as good as any squad in the Premier League but that's just because it is so close at the minute.

"There were a couple of years where Newcastle were bouncing up and down but the Premier League is where they should be. Like every team, if they can constantly be adding to the squad here and there to bolster what they've already got, it keeps them where they should be.

"It's very hard to predict because of the nature of the Premier League. You look at what Newcastle did against Spurs a few weeks ago. Nobody would have gave them a chance and they came away with a win. That's the nature of how close things are.

"You want them to have a good season and fingers crossed that things go well and they can build on it. It's another season in the Premier League and another chance to add to that at the end of the season and go from strength to strength. 

With the likes of Sean and Matty Longstaff, along with Paul Dummett, progressing through United's youth ranks, Hughes - an Academy product himself - admitted his delight in witnessing local talent breaking into the Magpies' first team.

He added: "There's always been a history of producing players and it's always good to see, especially in modern day football too when I think it's harder now for young kids to get into the squad.

"Teams can now pick players from all over the world and scouting networks is so vast from all over Europe. You can literally pick players from anywhere.

"To have kids coming through the academy, of the quality of the lads that are here, and being established in the team and not looking out of place is vital. It's vital to give hope for the next generation that are coming through and gives value to your academy.

"I'm not from Newcastle but because I came through the academy system, I always felt there was a little bit of a connection with the supporters because I came through the youth team.

"I can only imagine a kid from Newcastle has that even more - even more than what I had. I guess I was able to sample a little bit of that so I get to know how that feels. To be from here, it must be a special thing and they're all doing the club proud."

Hughes made a total of 455 top flight appearances for Newcastle, Aston Villa and then Fulham and was an ever-present with his country, achieving 112 caps with Northern Ireland - becoming the first outfield player to reach a century of appearances.

However, it looked as if Hughes would miss out on the milestone back in 2011 after making the decision to retire from international football.

He recalled: "The reason I originally retired from international football to start with was because I was getting a bit disillusioned with it if I'm honest. It was the same things over every campaign and we just weren't getting anywhere so I made a decision to focus on my club football."

So what was the main reasoning behind Hughes' return to international action?

"Michael (O'Neill) then came in as manager and spoke to me, sat down and had a conversation," he grins. "I liked what he had to say. Not that I knew everything but the things I had an idea of what we were missing, he was bringing them up before I even had a chance to speak about them.

"Also, we'd never had an outfield player to get to 100 caps for Northern Ireland. We only had Pat Jennings and it's a great achievement which shouldn't be undervalued. It hit it back at me to say there was an opportunity to go and get that.

"I never thought about 100 caps - I always wanted to get to a World Cup or a European Championship. That was my main goal so it got me thinking about it and I thought it would be good along with another a lot of other things he was speaking about, which included trying to get to a major tournament."

And that lifelong ambition was fulfilled in the summer of 2016 as Northern Ireland competed at the European Championship finals for the first time in the country's history, with Hughes selected in the 23-man squad.

The 36-year-old made his tournament debut in Northern Ireland's second group clash - a thrilling 2-0 victory over Ukraine - which ultimately helped secure Northern Ireland's place in the knockout stages before a narrow last-16 exit to Wales.

"I changed my mind and I'm very happy I did because the Euros is the biggest thing for me," Hughes smiles. "Getting to the finals eclipses the 100 caps but obviously it's a personal achievement and I'm very proud to have done that. 

"It was incredible! We'd never experienced that before and it's so different to normal qualifying campaigns. The previous tournament I would have played before that was schoolboy football. You don't get it in club football so much.

"It's funny because you go through your career and you're always trying to get to milestones or achieve things. It gets to a point where you think maybe it will never happen.

"That season leading up to the Euros, I was out in Australia and it didn't go as well as I'd hoped football-wise so I was going to the tournament just delighted to be a part of it, being with the squad and around it.

"To have the opportunity then to play as well was beyond your dreams. It's weird for an older player or 36-year-old player to say it was a dream come true but it was!

"The football was brilliant but the whole six-week experience I think followed that from when we first went away in the camp and all the way through. It was one of the best experiences of my whole career!"

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