Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Serbia: Hughes running out of time

By Stuart McKinley

When the time comes to end to his football career Aaron Hughes will look back on a lot of fantastic memories and with a great deal of satisfaction.

There is, however, one thing missing.

And as the Northern Ireland captain prepares to lead his team into a huge Euro 2012 qualifier against Serbia at Windsor Park tonight he knows that time is against him in his quest to fill that gap.

Although he’d love to win a medal at club level, playing in a World Cup or European Championships would make Hughes’ career complete. The clock won’t wait though — and he knows it.

“It has crossed my mind that time is against me if I want to play in the finals of a major tournament, but then as you get older you start thinking like that,” said Hughes.

“When you’re younger you think you’ve got all the time in the world, but as you get older you start to appreciated that the chances are starting to run out.

“That’s just what comes with getting old.”

Something else that comes with age is experience.

Like many of his team-mates Hughes has suffered the disappointment of the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 campaigns fizzling out after there had been so much hope of achieving a place in the finals.

In the last four years Northern Ireland have gone closer to qualification than at any time since a terrible home defeat at the hands of Latvia cost Bryan Hamilton’s team a place at Euro ‘96 in England.

At that time it was 10 years since Northern Ireland had been on the biggest international stages. Now it’s 25 and that’s too long for Hughes.

“We’ve been in this position before, in terms of where we are in the group, the games coming up and both times in the last two campaign we’ve just missed out,” said Hughes.

“Hopefully we’ve learned from those and we can overcome any mistakes we made.

“With being here before and in this position you get the experience of why it didn’t work out the last time.

“There are things that we need to do differently, be it personally or with the team shape or whatever and hopefully the outcome will be different too.

“We said that the last game was such a big game if we could get a win.

“Even the younger players have been in the position before and have the experience. I don’t think there was any particular reason why we missed out other than losing games at a crucial time.”

And, while losing tonight would make qualifying for next summer’s finals very difficult indeed, the opposite would trigger a snowball effect. The games would keep getting bigger and bigger. More important, more crucial and with that the reward gets closer.

Defeat and while the dream won’t be dead, it’ll be very hard to revive.

“It’s an important game because we’re getting to the latter stages of the campaign now,” said Hughes.

“A win for us now would put us in an excellent position

“We said last time before we played the Faroes that a win would put us in a good position and this is pretty much just the same.

“We’ve less room for error because there is less time to make up for any errors.”

No international manager ever gets the ideal fixture list, but the match calendar has, arguably at least, given Nigel Worthington his best chance of qualification since he took over four years ago.

Serbia at home is winnable, especially given the teams who have been toppled at Windsor Park before and Estonia are beatable home and away. Win those and the trip to Italy at the end will be a warm-up for a play-off.

“We’re in a good position, but Serbia and Slovenia will thinking the same thing,” said Hughes. “We can’t rely on the fixtures, we’ve got to win the games.”

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