Belfast Telegraph

Wales v Northern Ireland: Don't just remember me for this says Michael Hughes

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland great Michael Hughes has opened up about the controversial moment against Wales in 2004 that ended his outstanding international career.

In a frank and honest interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the former West Ham and Crystal Palace midfielder revealed his regret at becoming involved in an explosive altercation with Robbie Savage which led to both being red carded in a World Cup qualifier and why he doesn't want Northern Ireland fans to remember him for that incident.

The powder-keg clash of 12 years ago is back in focus this week with Northern Ireland meeting Wales in Cardiff tonight for the first time since the Millennium Stadium battle.

This evening's game is billed as a friendly. The 2004 encounter was anything but. It finished 2-2 with Northern Ireland ending the match with nine men due to dismissals for David Healy and Hughes and Wales with 10 following Savage's sending off.

The game started at a frantic pace and amid a feverish atmosphere, Hughes and Savage saw red in the eighth minute. Hughes had hacked down Savage, who reacted badly to the challenge. As the Welshman went to confront his opponent, Hughes pushed him, sending Savage tumbling to the turf - much to the enjoyment of the Northern Ireland supporters.

Savage, now an outspoken television pundit, left the pitch in tears knowing he would be suspended for a big qualifier against England, but the dismissal had an even bigger impact on Hughes and his life as an international footballer.

The game with Wales turned out to be his 71st and final cap... a crying shame for the then 33-year-old, widely regarded as one of the best players ever to wear a Northern Ireland shirt. His skills, passing range and goals - he netted two of his five international strikes against Germany - had lit up the team in his 13 years as an international.

"That was my last game for Northern Ireland. I retired after that because I was given a three-match ban which meant I would not play international football for six months. At that time it seemed to be the right thing to do," recalled Hughes yesterday.

"I missed big games that followed including when we beat England at Windsor Park the next year. If it hadn't been for the sending off in Cardiff I would definitely had played on for Northern Ireland.

"It was a poor tackle. It was a bit mad and a bit crazy for an experienced player like myself to do that. I think the red mist descended. And to be honest, I do regret it.

"I woke up the next morning and I was thinking what did I do that for and then you go into training with your club and you get a bit of stick from the lads and that picks you up and you don't feel so bad about it.

"But when I look back now I know a lot of people remember me for that incident in Cardiff and that's not how I want my international career to be remembered.

"If I was in the same situation again, I would handle it differently and tried to have played more games for Northern Ireland.

"I had visions back then of getting to 100 caps. It would have been a very difficult feat to achieve but I played until I was 37/38 so I still had a few years left in me at international level, but it wasn't to be."

Asked if the occasion, atmosphere or even simply because it was Robbie Savage - a 'love to hate' figure as a player then as much as he can be now as a pundit - that got to him, Hughes said he had no excuses.

"When you take to the field, whether you are playing Wales, Germany or Holland, you are focusing on your job as a footballer that particular evening," said the 44-year-old.

"Of course the supporters and the magnitude of the occasion resonates with you but that is all built into your preparation. You take all those things and those emotions on board before the game so once you get on the pitch that is done and you are focusing on the game.

"Also, it wasn't because it was Robbie Savage. I'm not going to start making excuses for what happened. I have nothing against Robbie Savage. I didn't know him then. I don't really know him now to be honest. It could have been anybody.

"Leading up to the incident, I believed Robbie intentionally or unintentionally, and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, threw an elbow towards my face and I didn't like that. I think that's what set me off.

"When I try to justify it, that is the only thing I can fall back on. That's the justification in my mind even though it didn't justify the actions that came after that.

"And I would stress to any young kids, and some of them look at that type of stuff on YouTube and think it is great, that what I did wasn't great. I should not have done that. That's not football. I deserved to go. He didn't."

Hughes, a hero with Northern Ireland fans before the incident, became an even bigger one after it. He understands the reaction but says he would hate what happened in Cardiff 12 years ago to define him as an international.

"I was with Crystal Palace at the time and we played Portsmouth the Saturday after the Cardiff match and I got a standing ovation from the Portsmouth supporters for having a go at Robbie," Hughes reflected.

"He was a pantomime villain in those days, the player everyone loved to hate, poor fella so I know why supporters make such a big thing of it.

"I didn't realise at the time it would have received so much coverage or that it would make people happy. Even now it is still a big talking point.

"I know Northern Ireland fans will remember it but really I would be preferred to be remembered by them for the good times I had with the team."

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