JOHN SOUTTAR has revealed that Aaron Hughes delivered a spine-tingling speech urging his Hearts teammates to grasp their chance of silverware following the final outing of his storied – but ultimately trophyless – career.
Northern Ireland icon Hughes, 39, was afforded one final hurrah on a suitably grand stage on Sunday, entering the fray as a 67th-minute substitute at Celtic Park as the Jambos succumbed to a 2-1 defeat against the Hoops.
The squad gathered for dinner in the aftermath of the trip to Glasgow and a toast was raised to Hughes’ wonderful career, which now appears over given he is unlikely to make the 18 for Saturday’s Scottish Cup final.
Roused to say a few words, Hughes – the most capped British defender in history with 112 games for his country and a regular with the likes of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Fulham – conceded that he would give up many of his 600-plus senior appearances for the opportunity to lift a major trophy.
Even at 17 years Hughes’ junior, suffice to say that message hit home with Souttar.
“We went out for food and Aaron was congratulated on his last appearance and he got up and said a few things,” explained Souttar. “He told us: ‘Look, it’s a cup final, you NEED to realise how important this game is’.
“He’s played through his whole career – 650 games or so, with a lot of them in the Premier League – and he’s never won a trophy. He told us that he’d swap a lot of those appearances for a trophy.
“The message was that this a massive chance for us that we need to grasp with both hands – because sometimes you don’t get as many chances as you think.
“It struck a chord. I’ve taken so much from Aaron during his time at Hearts anyway because of what he has done in the game so when he speaks you make sure you listen.”
Hughes’ outing at Celtic Park was his first appearance since a catastrophic cameo in December’s lamentable 5-0 reverse against Livingston but, while his time on the pitch has been limited, his influence behind the scenes remains palpable.
“He’s a massive personality here,” added Souttar. “You might not see him on the pitch but a lot of his work goes on off the pitch, behind the scenes. He sets standards on and off the pitch and it has been brilliant for me to learn off someone who’s achieved so much in the game.
“You learn from him every day and I try and take his values into my game.”
When seeking inspiration from those of his own generation, Souttar need not scroll down much further than Andrew Robertson on his contacts list.
As Souttar readies himself for the challenge of Celtic at Hampden, the Scotland skipper is currently preparing for his second consecutive Champions League final a week later, with Liverpool facing Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid.
And he is adamant the continued fearlessness shown by his friend and former Dundee United teammate is exactly what Hearts need when they face up to the Hoops.
“He’s an inspiration for all he has achieved and he just keeps doing it,” continued Souttar. “He was incredible in the [Champions League] semi-final against Barca and he plays without fear.
“That’s what we’ve got to do at the weekend: play without fear. That’s what Andy does in every game – he doesn’t think about it, no matter who he plays, he just stays focused and that’s a lesson for every player out there.”
Souttar, an unused substitute when United were defeated 2-0 by St Johnstone in the 2014 Scottish Cup final, will do his Scotland chances no harm at all with a stand-out showing against Celtic, in the week Steve Clarke was appointed national team boss.
He has already racked up three caps but was dubbed ‘a big lump’ by Clarke following a 1-0 triumph for Hearts at Rugby Park earlier this term.
Souttar laughed: “It’s something I’ve not thought too much about because everything has been focused on this game, it is such a huge occasion for the club. I’ll think about that after the Cup final.
“But fingers crossed being called a ‘big lump’ by him was a compliment . . . otherwise I’m in trouble.”