A lot of eyebrows were raised when Kerala Blasters announced former Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes as its marquee singing for the 2016 Indian Super League season. The no-nonsense defender, who had played a vital role for his nation at the EURO 2016, wasn’t exactly a flashy signing like Mumbai City’s Diego Forlan or Altetico’s Helder Postiga.
Manager Steve Coppell had an explanation though — he wanted a marquee player who can contribute and be a part of the playing XI and not just another fading star.
Hughes and his team-mates have certainly justified their manager’s belief and are slowly turning Blasters into a defensively sound unit. The team has conceded just four goals in its six matches so far.
Sportstar caught up with ex-Newcastle United and Fulham player for a quick chat ahead of his team’s match against Chennaiyin FC.
Question: Though, defensively solid, Kerala has found it difficult to score goals. What do you think is the major problem?
Answer: I think, we can say that a lot of teams have struggled to score goals. Most of the games so far have been low scoring affairs. We need to keep creating chances and the goals will come.
Recently there has been a lot of debate on the number of foreign players in the playing XI, with some experts insisting it is too many while some like Gianluca Zambrotta and Theiry Henry saying it is the right balance. What is your opinion?
Football in India is growing and that’s exactly what you want to happen. The ISL is bringing in players with great experience. I think it’s a good thing to bring this experience to a league that already has a certain standard and wants to improve. That’s how you learn. When I was a kid, I was always looking up to these older pros, seeing how they trained and learning from them. So I think having foreign players can only help ISL.
Tell us more about EURO 2016… The imapct of coach Michael O’Neill’s and what it meant for Northern Ireland football.
His (O’Neill) impact was massive from the beginning, even if the results didn’t come straight away. Within the squad there was a massive difference; we knew what to do and we were sure that if we kept working and believing we would get our chances in the future. And that’s exactly what happened. His had a huge impact.
EURO 2016 was the first major championship we quailified for since 1986 and it was great for the country and the future generation to see the team competing against the very best.
What do you make of FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s plan of making it a 48-team World Cup? A lot of people have cricticised the idea, saying it will dilute the nature of the competition.
There was a similar argument about EURO 2016. I think when you look at it, the so-called smaller teams were the ones topping their groups and securing automatic qualification. And some of the big teams were struggling. This had nothing to do with the extra numbers. The teams were there because they had earned the right to be there. At the end of the day, no matter how many teams you’ve got there (in the tournament), they are there due to the quality and the tournament will not suffer.
Do you fancy a longer stay in Indian football, maybe a shot at I-league? Or are you eyeing a return to UK or Australia?
Once the ISL finishes, I plan to go back to UK. I’ll see what options I have there. I hope to be involved with the national team in our World Cup qualifying campaign which will go on till next November. I will see what options are there and I will try to carry on playing as long as I can.
What do you think Indian football needs now? You have played in multiple grounds and trained at different places, do you think India has everything in place as fas as infrastructure is concerned?
Football is still growing here and that is to be expected. Hence, it is important to keep bringing manager and players from other countries; people who have been at the very top. They see how things should be done and they see those little details that other people will miss. And sometimes these little details can make a huge difference. At the moment Indian football is good. But it can get better and I’m sure it will.
The pitches that I have played in so far have all been good. But there are a lot of things that makes a league successful, such as training facilities and the ease of the transport to the ground. Not just for the players but for also the fans. Once these little things are polished the league will get even better.