Michael O’Neill is set to give Notts County midfielder Jeff Hughes the perfect belated birthday present on Saturday night — a third Northern Ireland cap after six years in the international wilderness.
Hughes, who turned 27 on Tuesday, made his Northern Ireland debut in the 2006 end-of-season trip to the United States, playing in games against Uruguay and Romania.
But Lawrie Sanchez didn’t pick him again nor did his successor Nigel Worthington.
Worthington, having watched Hughes numerous times for Bristol Rovers, felt the midfielder “wasn’t strong enough” for international football.
However, O’Neill will give Larne-born Hughes a chance to prove himself when Northern Ireland clash with Holland at the Amsterdam ArenA.
O’Neill is not expecting miracles from the League One star, who netted 13 goals this season, against such a strong opposition as Holland.
Instead he will be watching Hughes closely during the three training sessions to see if he is capable of making a valuable contribution during the World Cup qualifiers which start in September.
“Jeff Hughes is a player we have had watched a lot,” admitted O’Neill.
“Tommy Johnson lives in Nottingham and he has been able to go to Notts County to see him.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff is looking at maybe getting a club in the Championship this summer to move up a level.
“I wasn’t able to pick Jeff in my first game (against Norway) so this is the first time I have had a chance to work with him. I have no interest in turning my back on anyone; I’m not stupid or naive enough to do that.
“Jeff has been playing in a central position for a lot of the season but I like him on the left. The other thing he can bring to the squad is goals, too,” the manager added.
Hughes, who left for Amsterdam with his international team-mates yesterday, is thrilled just to be in the squad.
“It’s great to be back, all I’ve ever wanted is the chance to play for my country again,” said the midfielder.
Meanwhile, Rangers last night made it clear they want Northern Ireland striker Andy Little to stay at Ibrox next season.
The once mighty Govan outfit, who entered administration in February, are keen for the Fermanagh-born striker to sign a new contract.
But League One new boys Portsmouth are now serious challengers to secure Little’s services next season along with a host of Championship clubs.
“Yes they want to discuss a new contract,” Little confirmed. “And I’m ready to listen to what they have to say.
“As things stand I see wonderful opportunities for me to cement a more permanent place in the side.
“So I’ll listen carefully to what’s on offer before making a final decision,” admitted Little, who went out on loan to Port Vale at the start of last season. However, despite the contract talks to sort out his club career, Little’s focus has switched to Saturday and the showdown with Holland in the Amsterdam ArenA.
With Kyle Lafferty and Warren Feeney not in the 24-man squad and Chris Brunt injured, the 23-year-old, who joined the Light Blues in 2006, will be in direct competition with Rangers team-mate David Healy for what is likely to be a Lone Ranger role against the gifted Dutch.
Having impressed Rangers boss Ally McCoist towards the end of the season and having been given plenty of game time in the SPL, Little is determined to build on his seven international caps for Northern Ireland. He said: “I would imagine the manager may only play one up front, but I got a fair run with Rangers towards the end of the season and enjoyed it. It’s a tough role to play but I’m up for it if I get the nod. I’m on a bit of high after my performances at club level.
“I’ve taken a lot of confidence from that. I’ve been keeping myself ticking over and sticking rigidly to the fitness programme handed out by Rangers to all players.
“I suppose it’s a strange time to have a match and obviously we face a tough test against Holland, but I see it as a great opportunity to impress the new manager.”
Northern Ireland international Michael O'Connor, who wasn’t offered a new deal by Scunthorpe, has agreed a move to League Two side Rotherham.