Aaron Hughes is feeling the weight of a country’s expectation on his shoulders like never before — but he is taking it all in his stride.
The Poland showdown in Chorzow tonight is one of the biggest games in the Cookstown man’s career but he cut a cool customer at the team’s Katowice base yesterday.
As captain, Hughes must lead by example in what will be an enormous test of character in the intimidating Slaski Stadium but the Fulham defender’s message is “bring it on”.
The 29-year-old and his defensive comrades will need to stand up and be counted in the face of a fierce Polish onslaught but he is licking his lips at the prospect of bumping the Poles out of the race for World Cup qualification.
“I can understand why people are saying this is one of the biggest games of our lives but we can still walk off the pitch after being beaten and our qualification hopes would not be dead and buried,” he insisted.
“Obviously, defeat would make our task tougher but there will be twists and turns in that race for top and second spot with teams facing each other.
“We understand there is a lot at stake for us but it is up to us to grab this chance. Our fate is in our hands. High pressure games are nothing new to us and it’s important to stay relaxed and save your energy for the game.
“When we prepare for games we try to stick to the same philosophy and that is to work hard in our training sessions. When you look around the hotel the lads are pretty relaxed and doing the same things they would do at home like play table tennis, things to keep our minds relaxed.
“There will be a big atmosphere but we know what is at stake and we have been in these positions before for clubs and country. We are used to dealing with high pressure games.”
Northern Ireland have only won nine World Cup qualifiers on their travels and that shocking record will have to be booted into touch if Hughes and co. are to showcase their skills in South Africa next summer.
But the former Newcastle United and Aston Villa defender, who will win his 68th cap in the Group Three battle this evening, is desperate to feature in the world’s greatest sporting showpiece.
“Playing in a World Cup Finals would be very special and as you get to the end of the campaign, these games really matter,” he added.
“There is less time to make up for mistakes and slip-ups will cost you but we know that, we have prepared for that.
“There are times when we have played well away from home and not got the result, but other times we haven’t performed well. Hopefully we can turn that around. In my first year at Fulham we couldn’t win an away game but in the last few games we simply had to — and we turned around and did it so this team can do the same.
“It’s international football. Playing at home can be difficult and it is even tougher in other teams’ backyards. The cliché of no easy games is true and the home side is always the more comfortable in their surroundings.”
Hughes is eyeing four points from this double header, with Slovakia up next at Windsor Park on Wednesday.
“I’ve thought about what points we would need but I think we should be targeting four points from these two games then we will be in a really good position,” he said. “It’s easy for me to say that now but it will be tough.
“Anything more than that is fantastic but anything else will leave you waiting on other results and hoping.
“Our two first away games (Slovakia and Slovenia) were two hard games. Slovakia are sitting top of the group and they are a good side. The two games back to back against San Marino came at a good time as it allowed momentum and confidence to be built up.”
Hughes’ Fulham team-mate Chris Baird is suspended for tonight’s showdown but the skipper is confident his defence will thwart the home side’s attacking threat.
“Bairdy is a loss because of his versatility and quality but we have had a few different combinations at the back and it shouldn’t be too big a problem,” he added.