Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland veteran Aaron Hughes finds the silver lining

By Rory Dollard

Aaron Hughes and Steven Davis – two wise old heads in the youthful Northern Ireland squad on the tour to South America – feel the team is returning home with their pride intact and better equipped for the Euro qualifiers.

Fans feared the worst when boss Michael O'Neill suffered a rush of withdrawals ahead of the games against Uruguay and Chile but the mixture of fresh faces and seasoned performers sweated for the cause.

O'Neill will finalise his plans for the qualifiers with renewed optimism after reflecting on a tour which saw four players handed international debuts.

Hughes was the elder statesman of the party, winning his 90th cap in yesterday's 2-0 loss to Chile.

Number 89 came five days earlier as Uruguay won 1-0 in Montevideo.

Against World Cup-bound opponents on home soil, O'Neill's depleted squad worked tirelessly in pursuit of a result and were 10 minutes from achieving one in Valparaiso until Chile's high-class substitutes Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Pinilla fashioned two late goals.

Hughes was frustrated not to have held out but refused to let that dampen his enthusiasm for what has taken place over the last two weeks.

"It's been a really, really good trip and two really good performances," said the 34-year-old.

"When you look at the quality of opposition there's no shame whatsoever in what we have done.

"It is a massive learning experience for us. To come out to South America to play against two teams who are going to the World Cup and to be able to compete with them, show we can play against that standard and not look out of our depth.

"The work we've put in over the past 10 days, the way the squad has gelled and the morale has all been really good.

"That is just as important as saying we played well and didn't deserve to lose.

"Everything is so positive. That was really why we came out here, it wasn't just to be cannon fodder, there was a real purpose."

"To have walked away from the game knowing we had taken something from it would have been great but there were so many things to be happy about in both games even though we are a little disappointed."

Although the performances of Hughes and fellow senior men Steven Davis and Roy Carroll were the standouts, the former captain was keen to sing the praises of the less experienced players.

Doncaster's Luke McCullough, 20, played above himself in both games against the likes of Edinson Cavani and Alexis Sanchez, 19-year-old Ryan McLaughlin looked a real handful on his first start in Chile and brother Conor McLaughlin made the step up from Fleetwood Town with minimal fuss.

There were also first caps on the tour for Liam Donnelly and Paul Paton.

"The young lads who have come in have looked comfortable on the whole trip, not just in the games," said Hughes.

"It's not just that they've come in, played their games and done well, it's the opposition they played against.

"They've shown they weren't fazed by it and they are competing at that level and taking a step up.

"That's what we need. We need these young players coming through and stepping up exactly like this and the composure they've shown has been fantastic.

"If they are called upon in the next few months they have already shown they can step up and that is fantastic."

Skipper Steven Davis echoed Hughes' view that the tour has been a resounding success.

"I've really enjoyed the trip, it's been really worthwhile and Michael (O'Neill) has seen some of the younger players as well," said the Southampton midfielder.

"I've been coming away with Northern Ireland for a lot of years and this has been up there with the most enjoyable times I've had.

"The boys have been very professional, enjoyed themselves and put in two very good performances.

"Michael has an idea of how he wants to play in the qualifiers and we've set up well.

"Hopefully we can take that into the qualifiers."

Northern Ireland have proved they can frustrate opponents but O'Neill would love to have a prolific marksman at his disposal.

"To be honest we were all realistic when the trip came up, we knew it was always going to be difficult to come up against this level of opposition and pick up results," added Davis.

"The level of performances is one thing to take away and the freshness of the youngsters is another.

"It's been very lively and a very worthwhile trip."

Five plus points from the tour:

1. Everyone knows how limited Northern Ireland's resources are but the younger members of the touring squad have shown the shelf isn't completely empty beneath the tried and trusted senior men. Luke McCullough, Conor McLaughlin and his brother Ryan all seized their chance to impress O'Neill ahead of the Euro qualifiers, which begin in September.

2. After varying between 3-5-2 and 4-4-2, Michael O'Neill seems to have settled on the former system for the time being. It's a smart decision, best utilising Northern Ireland's stock of centre-halves and beefing up the middle of the park. Now all we need is a prolific striker to put the ball in the back of the onion bag!

3. If Steven Davis ever puts in two better shifts than he did against Uruguay and Chile, his country won't go far wrong. He excelled against top-drawer opponents and covered every blade of grass in both games. The Southampton midfielder stamped his class on this tour and his leadership qualities and experience shone through.

4. After a year of wondering whether or not the Liverpool rookie would ever have a Northern Ireland career, now fans can look forward to a distinguished one. His pace, confidence and belief will only get better with experience. Club boss Brendan Rodgers will keep him on the right track and Michael O'Neill has unearthed a new gem.

5. O'Neill needs out-of-contract Roy Carroll to find a club soon, preferably in England, but the good news is that any scouts watching his last two performances will surely have taken notice. The veteran could walk into a Championship club and do the job.

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