'Aaron Hughes stood out at a young age'
The man who first handed Aaron Hughes a senior international call-up revealed last night that he saw "something special" in the young man who would go on to become Northern Ireland's longest serving captain.
Former manager Bryan Hamilton also paid a massive compliment to retiring skipper Hughes by comparing him to the legendary Mal Donaghy, who went on to win 91 caps after playing in the World Cups of 1982 and 1986.
Hughes, who will be 32 in November, announced on Saturday that next month's Euro 2012 qualifiers against Estonia and Italy will be his last games for Northern Ireland, deciding to focus on what is left of his club career at Fulham as well as his two young daughters.
Hamilton took Hughes to Portugal for a World Cup qualifier in October 1997, when he was just 17 years old and before he'd made the breakthrough at Newcastle United.
The call-up raised eyebrows at the time, especially when more experienced players were overlooked and the relatively unknown youngster was handed only a watching brief when it came to match day. But shortly afterwards the reasons for the decision became abundantly clear.
That match turned out to be Hamilton's last in charge of Northern Ireland and it was Lawrie McMenemy who gave Hughes his debut in March the following year.
"There was something special in him, even at a young age and I wanted him in the squad," said Hamilton.
"I felt he could be an outstanding player for Northern Ireland and I knew that coming in early wouldn't affect or faze him.
"To a degree I can understand Aaron's decision, but it is also very disappointing when he still has so much to offer.
"Whether it is club football or international football, you hope when someone retires there will be someone else who comes along, but Northern Ireland is losing something special and the squad will now be poorer because Aaron Hughes is leaving."
It was only three months after winning the Milk Cup - alongside David Healy, who would go on to join him in the senior international squad - that Hughes headed to Lisbon.
Even then, though, there was no doubt that here was a young player with all the qualities needed to have a career at the top level and, the fact that Hughes has never played outside the Premier League, is testament to how good a player he is.
On the international scene, Hughes by-passed the under-21 ranks. There was no need for him to serve an apprenticeship when by the time his debut came he had already broken into the first-team at Newcastle United, then one of the major forces in English football.
Since April 2002 he has been an inspirational captain for Northern Ireland. He has never made big statements or been hugely vocal, instead his leadership style has been in the 'don't do as I say, do as I do' category and rarely has he done anything wrong in 79 international appearances.
Provided Hughes returns from injury in time to face Estonia and Italy his name will be seventh on the list of Northern Ireland's most capped players when he bows out. Only Pat Jennings, Donaghy, Healy, Sammy McIlroy, Maik Taylor and Keith Gillespie will have won more and he deserves to be spoken of in the same glowing terms as the other half dozen.
"Mal Donaghy retired early on in my time as manager. He was a great pro, a role model and someone who'd had a distinguished international career," added Hamilton.
"He was a player, a captain and a winner and Aaron Hughes is exactly the same. A quiet professional who goes about his job with the minimum of fuss, but also does it to a very high standard."