Belfast Telegraph

Estonia v Northern Ireland: Upbeat Hughes well aware it’s time to face the music

By Steven Beacom

Take a walk around the old town in Tallinn and you will see scores of tourists enjoying the quaint attractions that this city possesses.

This week the Green and White Army are in town.

Around 1,200 of them will be roaring Northern Ireland on tonight against Estonia in Le Coq Arena in a must win Euro qualifier for both sides.

Down the years the Northern Ireland fans have enjoyed themselves in some weird and wacky drinking establishments around the world, but even they have been taken aback by a Depeche Mode tribute bar in the middle of Tallinn.

Called the DM bar and dedicated to the ‘80s English band, it only plays Depeche Mode songs, so if you like a bit of Abba, Elvis, Britney or Lady Gaga, forget it.

Opened by a devoted fan in 1999, visitors bedecked in green have frequented the place and been listening to tunes that they could relate to their beloved team.

A Pain That I'm Used To (if we fail to qualify for a major finals again), Get the Balance Right (regarding Nigel Worthington's tactics) or better still Dream On have all been belted out of the sound system.

Northern Ireland skipper Aaron Hughes, incidentally not a big Depeche Mode fan, would opt for the Dream On option on the jukebox because he believes it still is where our Euro 2012 finals hopes are concerned, despite Friday's 1-0 reverse at Windsor Park against a slick Serbian side.

There would be few international stars, playing for any country, more deserving of a place at the European Championships next year.

Before the Serbia match, the Fulham defender spoke of his fears that time is running out for him to play in the glamour stages of a big tournament.

It's a point well made with Hughes, who wins his 79th cap tonight, 32 in November.

Seconds before he began his Press conference yesterday he banged his leg against a table. Thankfully there was no serious damage. If the Cookstown man got injured, we'd have no chance.

Hughes has been outstanding in this qualifying campaign, leading a mean defence into battle. Worthington's men may have struggled to score goals, but they have only conceded four in seven games.

It's not just at international level where the former Newcastle United favourite has shone – he's been exceptional for the Craven Cottage outfit as well.

I've said for years along with international and club team-mate Chris Baird, that Aaron is one of the most undervalued players in the Premier League.

Hughes says: “I've really enjoyed the past three or four years. I've got a great partnership with Brede Hangeland at Fulham.

“At international level too, I've enjoyed it. If you are playing well for your club it helps when you come away with Northern Ireland.”

Never one to savour speaking about himself, Aaron prefers to talk about the team.

And when he discusses Northern Ireland, there is a genuine sense of pride in his voice.

If the players were feeling down about the loss to Serbia and some criticism that followed it, Hughes pointed out that they are upbeat again for the important fixture with Estonia.

“It is a must-win game,” he says emphatically. “This time it really is. We know we’ve got to go and try and win it and try and be positive.

“We don’t need to try and win a game in the first 10 minutes, we need to keep the ball down, get ourselves plenty of confidence and we have to be patient.

“If you get to the last 10 minutes and it’s 0-0 you know you have to throw a bit of caution to the wind then.

“The belief and mood among the boys is fine. Nobody has their head down. Training over the last few days has been a good standard and we know that everyone will go out and give everything so you hope for a bit of luck and the chance to show some quality too.

“We try and be optimistic against everyone we play, whether it’s Italy, Serbia, Estonia or whoever. We'll set out to play a certain way to create chances and when they come hopefully we can put them away.”

Putting just one of them away might do because Hughes, with big Gareth McAuley beside him in central defence, has what it takes to mastermind another clean sheet. Like that Depeche Mode number, Northern Ireland's outstanding skipper ‘Just Can't Get Enough' of those.

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