Larne skipper Jeff Hughes ‘excited’ to make history

Jeff Hughes spent over a decade flying back home from England at the end of every season for summer family visits - this week he will board a plane leaving Northern Ireland as the first man to captain Larne in European football.

By Patrick van Dort
Thursday, 8th July 2021, 7:00 am

The significance of leading out his hometown club on a landmark occasion against Bala Town is not lost on the 36-year-old, who left Northern Ireland as a teenager before returning home in 2018 seeking to invest that accumulated experience from time across the water back into his Irish League roots.

The substantial financial investment injected into Larne by another hometown hero in Kenny Bruce has provided the driving force for a rise enjoyed by Hughes and his team-mates out of the Championship into the Premiership and now preparing for Europe following a domestic campaign which included the club’s first taste of senior silverware in 33 years and a second Irish Cup final career appearance by the former Northern Ireland international.

“It’s probably not yet settled in that Larne will be playing in Europe,” said Hughes. “It’s all really exciting.

Larne captain Jeff Hughes with the Co Antrim shield.

“I think the Irish League now is stronger than ever and so competitive from top to bottom.

“The fact we have the four places back in Europe for our clubs is massive.

“European football is all brand new to us as a club so we want to enjoy the experience but also give it a go and see how far the journey takes you.

“It’s about continued progress for us and I’m sure this European situation can only help us move forward.”

Injury restricted Hughes’ influence during the European play-off final win over Cliftonville to the wrong side of the white line...closer to the fans than his team-mates as Larne secured the result that set up this week’s Europa Conference League trip to Wales.

“For the European play-off win when out injured my plan was to stand by myself at the side but that part of the ground was closed off,” said Hughes. “I ended up closer to the crowd...but I know half of them anyway!

“It was great during the celebrations after to be able to thank the fans.”

That same construction work which stopped Hughes from taking up his original spot at Inver Park to watch the play-off final stands as another symbol of the ambition the player so admires.

For Hughes, who scored the decisive penalty to secure last December’s Co Antrim Shield prize and previously called representing Larne on the Irish Cup final stage as - despite now holding two loser’s medals - “the proudest moment of my career”, it is no surprise to hear him talk with passion and pride about the positives generated by the club’s progress.

And with Hughes now back home and raising a family in Larne, his focus centres on the internal gains over any negative outside noise regarding the financial advantages.

“Being from the town and having played years ago before going to England, I remember the club struggling...so to see everything now is just fantastic,” said Hughes. “To see more Larne tops on kids now than maybe Liverpool or Manchester United is just great and when I’m out and about around town the first thing someone wants to talk to you about is football.

“You could be out walking the dog or having lunch and someone will come up to you and it’s brilliant...that close link you can have with the fans is great and a massive part of the Irish League appeal for me.

“It’s not like some player from a Premier League club in England who the odds are you will never get the chance to meet.

“I think the NIFL guys do a great job and the streaming opportunities last season really opened up the chances for people to watch Irish League games.

“The young fans coming in now to support the club will hopefully be getting memories that create a lifelong bond.

“And it’s not just about the games, as players living in the area we interact as much as possible with the youth groups and schools.

“You would need a heart of stone not to think this all means something special when a parent comes up and tells you the simple time you spent having a kickabout at a school with his child meant so much.

“Kenny Bruce will always be remembered for what he has done for the club and town.

“People like my uncle used to come down and help out around the club with jobs like painting the walls.

“And it’s important to Kenny and everyone to keep that kind of connection strong and alive, it’s not just about putting money into something but losing the traditions.

“Even as a squad, we are encouraged to live in the area if possible and there’s a big focus within the group to make sure everyone is feeling included.

“We try to spend time together socially, that could be between the players’ families or inviting out some of the younger guys to watch a match or something.

“I know how lonely I felt over in England at times at first and all of that off-the-pitch stuff really feeds back into the group on the field.

“Something like European football was an aspiration and the goal as players is to try and take it in our stride now...but the impact on the community is just massive.”

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