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Michael O'Neill gives older players time to decide international futures

Published 28/06/2016

Jamie Ward waves to the fans in Belfast on Monday night
Jamie Ward waves to the fans in Belfast on Monday night

Northern Ireland's older players will be given time by Michael O'Neill to weigh up whether they want to bow out of international football after Euro 2016.

The campaign in France ended on Saturday for Northern Ireland following a 1-0 loss to Wales at the last-16 stage in what was the country's first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

O'Neill's attention will now turn to the qualification process for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which begins with a tricky trip to the Czech Republic in September, and he may have to accept that some of his elder players may want to sign off prior to that competition.

Back-up goalkeeper Roy Carroll is 38, defensive duo Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley are only two years younger and Chris Baird is 34.

Speaking after a fanzone event where 10,000 supporters welcomed them back to Belfast on Monday, O'Neill said: "Those who are thinking that it is time to call it a day, maybe they may rethink.

"We've had a wee laugh and a joke about it a couple of times but I think we need to give them time. They need to be able to go away from it and have time to reflect.

"Not only are they at a certain stage in their club career but they have young families too.

"They've been away for 39 days which is a huge commitment on top of what they've had with their clubs. The Premier League players already spend so much time away anyway with being away in hotels.

"I understand the things they have to consider. They have been great servants for me and great servants for Northern Ireland and we will respect any decision they make but hopefully they stay on."

Carroll signed a deal with Belfast-based Linfield before the tournament began and is unlikely to dislodge Michael McGovern any time soon following his heroics in France.

The fact McAuley's final act was to score the own goal which ultimately sent Northern Ireland out may convince him to stay on while t he early indications are that Hughes, who barely featured for Australian club Melbourne City last year, will continue too if he can find a deal with an English club next term.

The 103-cap international was brought in for the win over Ukraine and kept his place to play 270 minutes in 10 days.

"Aaron is just a phenomenon really," O'Neill added.

"It's very difficult to judge him when he hasn't really played much in Australia this year and it hadn't really worked out for him the way he'd hoped.

"But it's just a thing with Aaron Hughes - you'd trust him with your life. When I put him into the game I knew there was no way he was going to let me down and I thought he was fantastic in the three games he played."

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