Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes can't wait to celebrate a Hampden first

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes has an anniversary to celebrate. When he plays for Northern Ireland against Scotland tomorrow night, it will be exactly 17 years since he made his first international appearance.

From that debut against Slovakia at Windsor Park back in 1998, he has become one of the country's finest sporting servants with 94 caps to his name, yet surprisingly in all that time he has NEVER played at Hampden Park or even been to the stadium in any capacity.

The 35-year-old is keen to break his Hampden duck.

"I don't think I have ever played against Scotland, at senior level anyway, and I've never played at Hampden," said Hughes, whose game time at Brighton this season has been limited.

"That's why I am looking forward to it so much. It's a total first for me. I've never even been to Hampden, so this game probably has a bit more about it for me than most.

"We have had a couple of friendlies with Scotland over the years, but I've missed them through injuries, so now that I'm here ready to play I hope to enjoy it."

Normally a derby like this would have an edge, but given that Northern Ireland face Finland and Scotland play Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifiers on Sunday, there is a fear that tomorrow's contest will be somewhat diluted.

Hughes, who tomorrow will join David Healy as Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player, says: "I think it will still be competitive and I doubt any of us will go into the game half-hearted because we are both home nations teams, but we each have a big game on Sunday so there will be an eye or a thought on that.

"We will be using this as a warm up for our game on Sunday. I am sure Scotland will do likewise."

Both nations are well placed to qualify for Euro 2016.

Hughes, who has shone for Northern Ireland in their campaign to date, believes it would be fantastic if the two countries made it to the finals in France.

"It would be brilliant, I think the success we are having and to be in a position that we are, and Scotland the same, is raising a bit of excitement around both countries," he said.

"To France would be amazing. It really would be incredible because it's been so long since Northern Ireland qualified. In terms of being a player, you look at things you want to achieve in your career and playing in the finals of a major tournament would be right up there."

While Hughes remains one of the first names on a Northern Ireland team sheet, he has played just five games for Brighton since Michael O'Neill's side lost to Romania in November and his last match for the Championship outfit came on January 21.

He says: "I've gone through one of those periods where I've just had to get myself through it.

"The important thing is maintaining a level of fitness which means if you are required, you can go into a game and not look as if you haven't played in a while. Mentally, that's kept me going," added Hughes who couldn't believe how fast time had passed when told tomorrow will mark 17 years since his international bow.

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