Michael Smith hails Aaron Hughes as the ‘ultimate professional’ & hopes Northern Ireland link can kick-start international career ahead of World Cup



HEARTS defender Michael Smith reckons Aaron Hughes will still be going strong at 45 after expressing his delight at linking up with the Northern Ireland legend at club level.

Smith, 28, has already worked with the veteran stopper on the international stage, having claimed one cap for Michael O’Neill’s side – and he cannot wait to star alongside Hughes at Tynecastle.

With 106 caps to his name, Hughes is the most capped outfield player to represent a nation which produced luminaries such as George Best, Sammy McIlroy and Martin O’Neill. Indeed, he is only 13 appearances shy of legendary keeper Pat Jennings.

And, hailing his new colleague as the “ultimate professional”, he doesn’t envision Hughes grinding to a halt any time soon.

“He’ll probably go until he’s 45,” laughed Smith. “You can see why guys like Aaron and Christophe Berra have done so well in the game. They’re true professionals, they get on with their work.

“They do things properly in training, day-in, day-out and when it comes to games they’re 100 per cent committed.

“Aaron is the ultimate professional, really. Around the club and outside of football, he is someone who sets an example – everything like that.

“He’s fantastic to be around and work with, so I’m looking forward to having that every day.

“You can tell he’s still as fit as a fiddle and he’d give all the young boys a run for their money I reckon.

“It does make it easier to know a few boys to start with then get to know the rest of the boys.”

Smith revealed that he turned down the opportunity to join League Two outfit Coventry City in favour of Hearts, where – as well as Hughes – he will play alongside another compatriot in Kyle Lafferty and work under Northern Ireland coach Austin MacPhee.

Allied with the fact national team boss O’Neill lives in Edinburgh, it was the perfect storm in the year leading up to a World Cup.

“I spoke to Laff [Lafferty] before coming up just to make sure he was signing,” smiled Smith, who has penned a two-year deal after joining from Peterborough. “He told me he was so I thought ‘I’ll sign as well!’

“But it was Austin MacPhee that messaged me first saying ‘come up and have a look, speak to the manager and see what your thoughts are.’

“My agent told me about Coventry so I wanted to speak to both teams. But, after seeing the facilities, the ground and speaking to the manager here, there was only one choice.

“I’m hoping by doing well here I can get back in to the Northern Ireland squad.

“It’s up to me. That’s why I’ve come here. I can get a bit more coverage in front of the manager [Michael O’Neill] and obviously Austin’s here. If I do well, I can push myself back in to that squad.

“I did know that Michael lives in Edinburgh, so if they come and watch a few games it’ll be nice.”

Smith made his debut as a second-half substitute on Wednesday as Hearts lost the first match of their Irish training camp 1-0 against St Pat’s Athletic in Dublin and will be back in action on familiar territory on Saturday when the Jambos face Linfield at Windsor Park.

He added: “It’ll be nice to be back. It’ll be a tough game because they’ve been training and had their European games, but a really good game for us to get some fitness out of.

“We’re looking to get back in to the competitive sprit of things really.”