BY ALAN TEMPLE in DUBLIN – @CCP_Sport
AARON HUGHES still fondly recalls how Kyle Lafferty thrived when the weight of a nation was on his shoulders on the road to Euro 2016.
So the Northern Ireland legend has no doubt the Jambos’ marquee summer arrival will handle the pressure of being heralded as their new attacking talisman.
Hearts chiefs have done nothing to play down the significance of Lafferty’s arrival on a two-year deal, with head coach Ian Cathro declaring him their ‘focal point’ and assistant Austin MacPhee backing him to be the first man in maroon to hit 20 goals in a single season since John Robertson in 1992.
Rather than be cowed by the hype, Hughes is certain Lafferty will be buoyed by being the main man following three years of being a fringe player at Norwich and being farmed out on loan.
And that is not an uneducated predication. After all, Hughes saw first-hand how the lanky attacker reacted to leading the line as Northern Ireland reached last summer’s Euros in France, scoring seven goals – a tally only bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I believe Kyle thrives on that responsibility,” said Hughes. “He enjoys that challenge and that’s when you see the best of him. Drawing on that experience at international level, there have times when he has been that lone striker, someone who needs to do a lot of work for us and make the transition from defence to attack
“He holds the ball up, runs the challenge and can finish. He pretty much has everything that is suited to how we want to play. He is a big signing for us.
“You only have to look at his quality and, speaking from my experience with Northern Ireland, some of the goals he has scored and the contribution he makes to the cause – not just in terms of goals, but what he gives to the team – is immense.
“He is a big lad, covers the ground, and is deceptively quick when he gets those big legs going. He can do a lot more than just score goals for the team. He can be a real focal point for us.
“Of course Kyle is a good laugh – but he knows when to be the joker and when to play. Sometimes I think he gets unfair stick because everyone always sees him as the joker. That’s not always the case. When he is on the pitch, he is focused and wants to do well.”
Lafferty’s arrival is an undoubted coup for Hearts, given the former Rangers man could have, conservatively, earned double the salary by staying in England or seeking to pursue the tentative interest in his services from big-spending Azeri outfit Qarabag.
Perhaps predictably, then, the negotiations proved protracted, with a deal making him the Jambos’ top earner taking four days to ink.
“When I heard that we were interested, I was thinking ‘that would be a great one, I hope it comes through’,” smiled Hughes. “As you can imagine, I dropped him a couple of texts and, when it was ongoing, said to him ‘any chance of you just signing this deal?!’
“The club have worked really hard to make this happen and I really believe Kyle is excited to be here. It is a place that he knows he can do well.
“He is a big talent and someone who will do very well for us. When you get Kyle playing regularly and get him into a level of consistency and his form goes up; that’s when he really thrives.
“I think he is really looking forward to coming here. He has had a tough year and, looking ahead, this is a big season, with Northern Ireland too.”
Lafferty and Hughes were joined prior to the weekend by another familiar face as the Northern Ireland contingent – MacPhee is also a coach for the nation – at Tynecastle continues to grow.
Michael Smith joined the club for an undisclosed fee from Peterborough and, while an unknown quantity compared to Lafferty, Hughes is well placed to offer an insight for curious Jambos.
“Michael has been involved in a few squads, so I’ve seen him from that point of view,” said Hughes. “He is a good player – you know what you’re going to get with Michael. He’s reliable, he can get up and down and technically he’s good too.
“Maybe he’s one of those ones that might go under the radar a bit but turns out to be a really good signing.”
Hughes was speaking as Hearts touched down in Ireland for their pre-season training camp in the Emerald Isle. They face St Pat’s Athletic in Dublin tomorrow before travlling to Belfast for a clash against Linfield at Windsor Park.
Already the most capped outfield player for a nation that produced the likes of George Best, Sammy McIlroy and Gerry Armstrong, Hughes shows no signs of slowig down as he approaches a campaign which could culminate in playing at a World Cup.
“I’m scared to stop in case I stop functioning,” laughed Hughes, who is only 13 appearances short of Pat Jennings’ overall cap record of 119. “When I came back in January my goal was to try and get through the six months, then hopefully get another year. That’s happened.
“It keeps me playing somewhere I enjoy and it keeps me in contention with the national team in a year when we’ve got a chance of playing in the World Cup. I still feel good. I wouldn’t continue if I didn’t because it’s not fair on anyone, especially me.”