Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

Euro 2016: Michael O'Neill's words of wisdom brought Aaron Hughes back on the path to success

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill has recalled how a simple Saturday evening chat on the phone with Aaron Hughes just weeks into his tenure as Northern Ireland boss in 2012 persuaded the former captain to come out international retirement.

Cookstown-born Hughes initially retired on 79 international caps following Northern Ireland's ill-fated Euro 2012 qualifying campaign and the end of Nigel Worthington's reign as boss in November 2011.

But tonight in the festival city of Trnava, 36-year-old Hughes is expected to become a proud Northern Ireland centurion by winning his 100th cap against Slovakia in the final Euro 2016 warm-up game before next Sunday's opening Group C clash against Poland.

He is set to be only the third non-Englishman from the UK to accumulate a 100 caps behind Northern Ireland's legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings on 119 and Scotland's Kenny Dalglish who made 102 appearances for his country.

It's an incredible turnaround for a player who had become disillusioned with the Northern Ireland team when he first quit - but following that telephone conversation with O'Neill he soon bought into new manager's vision and is now reaping the rewards by going to Euro 2016 finals.

O'Neill said: "Following an inkling from my then assistant coach Billy McKinlay, who was with Aaron at Fulham, that he would consider coming back, Aaron phoned me on a Saturday night, I'd been at a game and flown back to Belfast and it was a real positive from me having just been in the job that Aaron wanted to come back.

"I hadn't put a timescale on that. We had a game three weeks later against Norway but he made his intentions clear from the off that if he was going to come back, he wanted to come back as soon as possible. It was a positive for the whole squad."

Following a disappointing stint with Brighton in the Championship during the 2014/15 season, Hughes moved his family to other side of the world and signed for Melbourne City in the Australia 'A' League. But the versatile defender only managed to play a handful of games due to injury and being out of favour. This though did not deter O'Neill from selecting Hughes in his 23-man squad for France.

O'Neill admits: "The four years I've had with Aaron have been positive. He trains well, looks after himself and if you're looking at your dugout and you're needing a player to go on the pitch at a certain moment in time, it's nice to have people like that to choose from. He's not a player I would rule out starting games, it's just he's had a difficult year in Australia in terms of the number of games and the competitive football he's played."

Current captain Steven Davis is full of admiration for his predecessor, saying: "He's a great example for all the players on the team."

Belfast Telegraph