Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland duty is providing respite for out of contract Aaron Hughes

By Rory Dollard

Aaron Hughes could have been at home this week spending time with his wife and two young daughters, or on a well deserved holiday after the end of the domestic season.

Instead, at the age of 34, he is enjoying one new experience, while putting another to the back of his mind.

Summer friendly internationals haven't been on Hughes' agenda since the very start of his Northern Ireland career, but with the 100 caps mark looming on the horizon, the Cookstown man knows that every appearance counts now. That is why he is now in Chile, where he is expected to pull on a green and white shirt for the 90th time.

When he gets back at the end of the week Hughes will then turn his attentions to his future at club level, now that he is a free agent for the first time in his career.

"How it's been prepared and how we've travelled, it has been one of the best trips I've ever been on," said Hughes, who had called time on his international career two and a half years ago before Michael O'Neill made a successful attempt to bring him back.

"This is the furthest away I've ever been with Northern Ireland and a lot of that is down to the manager.

"When I first spoke to him about coming back to international football it was this sort of thing that convinced me to come back.

"He does care and he knows the finer details that really matter and make the difference."

Hughes joined Queens Park Rangers on loan in January after being frozen out at Fulham by Rene Meulensteen during his brief spell in charge at Craven Cottage.

Having spent his entire career in the Premier League, Hughes is unsure of his next move, having been an unused substitute during QPR's successful play-off campaign at the end of the season.

"This is the first time I've been at the end of my contract. I've always moved to another club with time left on my contract or had a new contract in place," said Hughes, who lined up in Northern Ireland's narrow 1-0 loss to Uruguay last week.

"It's all new to me and that is why I'm trying not to get too excited or worried about it.

"I will be speaking to my agent and I will find out more when I get home to find out what's going on.

"The play-offs took my mind off it and so are these games for Northern Ireland so that is good.

"The big thing was to get to the end of the season and see what happened. It was only a week or so ago, but it seems a long time since.

"From there I've come on this trip and the focus was to go and enjoy this and the two games after the season ended because I haven't played as much as I would have hoped in recent weeks.

"This was a chance to play football and it is a new experience –probably my only chance to play in South America.

"I will have a few weeks holiday after this and then look at my options."

Hughes is determined to have one last crack at qualifying for a major finals when Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign kicks off in September.

Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands will all be aiming for the same thing and with the opposition on something of a par with Northern Ireland, the games in Uruguay and Chile this week, as well as the work on the training ground, could bring rewards in the near future as O'Neill puts his stamp firmly on the team.

"Playing three at the back gives us a little bit extra defensive, having that extra man without having to pull someone out of position, but when we have the ball, we have bodies to keep it and it works well for us and the players we have right now," said Hughes.

"This trip is so beneficial because we can build and try to make sure out results match the level of performance."

And after being disappointed not to get a draw against Uruguay, Hughes is looking for more against Chile, even though he thinks that they pose more of a challenge.

"From what I've seen Chile will be a step up. They played England a little while back and I think for people who weren't too familiar with them, they maybe sat up and took notice," said Hughes.

"It is a really good test for us, but the atmosphere is really positive and the group has all come together on this trip.

"If we can do well in the Chile game it would be a massive confidence booster looking ahead to the European Qualifiers."

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