Slovenia v Northern Ireland: Discipline holds key to our hopes, says Aaron Hughes
Nigel Worthington has read the riot act to his squad and Aaron Hughes says the players have sat up and listened.
The Northern Ireland boss has told his troops he won’t tolerate any dummies being hurled out of prams and Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty could be confined to the bench tonight after his display of petulance in Montenegro.
The Kesh man has hit headlines for the wrong reasons during a controversial spell at Rangers, while Burnley winger Martin Paterson also lost his cool in the heat of Podgorica.
Worthington needs his men channelling all their energies into hurting the opposition and Hughes — who will hand the captain’s armband over to Stephen Craigan on the occasion of his 50th cap — is confident the message has got through.
“The players have taken on board what Nigel has said to them, definitely,” said the Fulham centre-back.
“If Friday night doesn’t go the way we want it to go that doesn’t mean the campaign is over. We are still a close-knit squad that will work hard for each other.
“There is no point in getting caught up in the hype and expectation. It’s very important we stick together and don’t harm ourselves or believe any negative publicity.
“What is written or said about us from outside the camp is irrelevant. You can let things get you down or start believing you are better than you are.”
Hughes paid a warm tribute to Motherwell skipper Craigan who will lead out the side at the Ljudski Vrt Stadium.
“Of course, Stephen will be captain as is the case with any player on his 50th cap,” he added.
“He is no different. All the lads will be happy for that.
“It’s great to see him reach his 50th because he has been one of our more solid performers over the last five years.
“It is fully deserved because he has always stepped up to the plate every time he has been asked to.
“He has given 100 per cent and never let anyone down. It is players like that who younger players can look up to and aspire to be like them.
“It’s not just about what they do on the pitch, it is how they conduct themselves off it as well. Stevie, being Stevie, he won’t let anyone take anything away from the game.
“He will want nothing, other than to be focused on the game and come Friday night if we get a good result and make it a more memorable and special occasion for him then it would be a nice way for him to celebrate.
“It’s a special night for a player and it’s only right they get the chance to lead the side out.”
The gloomy stats have been hurled at Hughes — no wins in 10 games, no goals in seven matches — but the Cookstown man, who will win his 72nd cap, says such talk goes over his head.
“I keep being asked about this statistic,” he said. “Basically, the only time we talk about it is in media interviews.
“We haven't focused on it as a group, we haven’t mentioned it and we haven't discussed it in terms of being a problem.
“We want to score goals and win games, but we don't want to do that just to break statistics. We want to score and win to get to the Euro finals.
“In international football it’s very easy to look at statistics in isolation and get a story. They make for talking points.
“People forget we played two of those games in the summer with a very inexperienced squad. The fact we didn’t score at the time is irrelevant in the bigger picture.
“International football is hard, especially away from home. You don’t get many chances.
“You've got to respect the fact you're on someone else's patch and they will make it very difficult for us.”
Slovenia kick off the game as firm favourites and Hughes places tonight’s opponents in the same category as fellow Group C big guns Italy and Serbia.
“It’s a tough test, personally I rate Slovenia as highly as Serbia and Italy — don’t think there is any difference in class — they will pose just as much a threat,” added Hughes.
“We know them from the previous campaign but that works both ways as they know about us to.
“But there are certain things in the game that hopefully we can use to our advantage to get a result.
“It will still be very difficult as the form they showed in the last campaign they took into the World Cup.
“Beating Russia in the play-offs to get there was a big result and when they got there they could have easily progressed out of their group.”