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Michael O'Neill praises Aaron Hughes ahead of his 100th Northern Ireland cap

Published 03/06/2016

Aaron Hughes will win his 100th cap if he appears in Slovakia on Saturday
Aaron Hughes will win his 100th cap if he appears in Slovakia on Saturday

Michael O'Neill has paid tribute to defender Aaron Hughes as he prepares to win his 100th Northern Ireland cap four years after performing a retirement U-turn.

The 36-year-old, who spent last season with Melbourne City, had initially called time on his international career in 2011 after making 79 caps only to rejoin the fold when O'Neill took the job three months later.

O'Neill explained how Hughes' commitment at the start of his time in charge was a boost and he could now select the defender on Saturday against Slovakia, the country whom he made his debut against in 1998.

"We got an inkling that he would have welcomed a conversation (about coming back), which I would have had anyway, but it made it slightly easier," O'Neill revealed.

"He phoned me on a Saturday night, I'd been at a game and flown back from Belfast, and it was a real positive from me having just been in the job that Aaron wanted to come back.

"I hadn't put a timescale on that. We had a game three weeks later against Norway but he made his intentions very clear from the off that if he was going to come back, he wanted to come back as soon as possible. It was a positive for the whole squad.

"The four years I've had with Aaron have been positive. He's been a good player for me. In the past year he hasn't started as many games but he's still a very important member for the squad, a great example to all the young players but ultimately still a player that has an awful lot to offer.

"He trains well, looks after himself and if you're looking at your dugout and you're needing a player to go on the pitch at a certain moment in time, it's nice to have people like that to choose from.

"He's not a player I would rule out starting games, it's just he's had a difficult year in Australia in terms of the number of games and the competitive football that he's played."

Although Hughes started O'Neill's first game at the helm, he did not assume the captain's armband again, with that honour bestowed on current skipper Steven Davis.

"Everybody looks up to Hughesy and can take a lot from him in terms of his application and the level of professionalism he shows and his consistency," Davis added.

"I don't remember Hughesy ever having a bad game and that probably goes for everybody. He's a great example for all the players on the team."

Slovakia head coach Jan Kozak had already revealed which 11 players he would select in Trnava before O'Neill conducted his press duties.

However, the local journalists hopeful of learning if Hughes would be involved against the country he made his debut against were left guessing.

"Maybe, maybe not," O'Neill said, laughing.

"That would be very nice but we are only focusing on the preparation of the team, I think Aaron would be fully behind that decision. The importance is the game. Aaron deserves to get 100 caps but the decision on whether he starts the game or is used in the game depends on how the game goes and if I select him to start."

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