BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
GRAHAM STACK watched Aaron Hughes shackle Diego Forlan, Florent Malouda and Helder Postiga – and reckons Hearts potentially have the best defender in Scotland on their books.
His only regret is Hibs did not swoop first.
Former Easter Road keeper Stack played behind Hughes for Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League last term, helping them to register the best defensive record in the division on their way to the championship final.
The 35-year-old, now at Eastleigh following his adventure on the sub-continent, insists the Northern Irishman was the glue that held the team together – and is not surprised to see Hughes strolling it north of the border thus far.
“I’ve played in Scotland and I’ve no doubt Aaron Hughes can be the best central defender there,” said Stack. “There is no way you can play more than 100 games for your country, play in the Euros six months ago, and not handle the SPFL.
“Anyone that questioned him, just because of his age – are they being serious?
“He might not be as quick as he was five years ago, but he has everything else. Not many people up there will be getting the better of Hughesy. No-one did over in India, and he was playing against far better players than he will in the SPFL.
“Hughesy was the catalyst for all our success. The way he led us, on and off the pitch, was a real credit to the type of player and man he is.
“The young Indian lads are so inquisitive. They want to know why you are eating certain things, doing stretches, working on stuff. They want to draw on the experience of guys who have done well in England.
“They want to better themselves and Hughsey was just brilliant with them. He was a real leader and immense for us. As much as it hurts me to say, I think that is an absolutely terrific signing for Hearts.”
Hughes even sought Stack’s advice before making the move to Edinburgh – and was met with tales of derby day in the capital, assuring him he would not regret switching to Scotland.
“I spoke to him before he joined Hearts and he was asking me about the people, the city and the clubs,” Stack continued. “I’m always totally honest – he knows that – and told him he would love it.
“The people are great, there is so much to do, and he would get the chance to play against two of the biggest clubs in Europe, in Celtic and Rangers.
“I told him he would hopefully get the chance to have a derby – which thankfully has come about with the Cup draw.
“My only problem is that he’s joined the wrong team! I wish Hibs had signed him.”
Stack recalls ruefully “I played in five derbies, saved a penalty in one, and still didn’t win any”, yet he still pines for those electric occasions.
And has been keeping tabs on the build-up this week thanks to a chat with Hibs’ cup-winning skipper David Gray.
“I managed to speak to Dave during the week,” he continued. “I’ve got mates who are still season ticket holders as well. So I’ve definitely been keeping track.
“Everybody knows how much I loved playing for Hibs, so hopefully they can get the job done this weekend. I didn’t have much luck in those games but still loved playing in them.
“I’d get bundles of stick during the game and uptown but, listen, that’s all good. We’re all football fans and can have banter if it doesn’t go too far. That way the whole city is buzzing is something I’ve missed since going back to England.”
So do not try to tell him Sunday is “just another game”.
“I remember sitting in the dressing room when Pat Fenlon was in charge at Hibs and he would say ‘it’s only another game’,” he recalled. “I’d be thinking ‘are you having a laugh?’ That’s no way to get up for a derby! No wonder Hibs didn’t win many under him.
“Whereas Yogi [John Hughes] would say ‘get out there and smash this lot around the pitch!’ That’s more like it! And you can bet that’s the type of team-talk Neil Lennon will have for the boys on Sunday.”