Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes is amazed by his longevity at the top level

By Graham Luney

Aaron Hughes says he can't believe he's still living the dream with Northern Ireland.

The experienced defender is still going strong for club and country at the age of 37 and last month agreed a new one-year deal with Scottish Premiership side Hearts.

Hughes won his 105th cap in the 1-0 friendly victory over New Zealand on Friday night and before the Windsor Park clash he received a special trophy marking his century.

Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player is now 14 appearances behind the legendary Pat Jennings. He doesn't fancy his chances of catching the goalkeeping great, but the former Newcastle United and Fulham ace is surprised he remains in the running for the top spot.

Hughes had thought the Euro 2016 campaign would be his last but now the popular Cookstown man finds himself hunting down back-to-back major tournaments.

The incredible journey, which even included stops in Australia and India, goes on and he's enjoying life in Edinburgh.

Northern Ireland's fairytale adventure, masterminded by Michael O'Neill, continues to unfold with the tantalising prospect of a World Cup appearance in Russia next year on the horizon.

Hughes knows he's in the autumn of his career, but he's not ready to leave the stage just yet.

When asked if he believed he would still be involved with Northern Ireland at the age of 37, he said: "No, because you get to a point that you don't know what's ahead.

"Leading into the Euros I was fairly certain that I would go there and that would be it with club football as well. But last summer I was enjoying it and still having that buzz. I thought I would regret walking away at that stage. I wasn't setting real targets because I needed a club to take a chance on me, but as those things fell into place then I set little goals. I'm just looking forward to the Azerbaijan game, having a few weeks off and then on to next season.

"It's a great time to be involved. Think of all the games early on... somebody was joking before saying, 'Why did it take so long?' Well, the first 80 games were a disaster! It's like 25 proper games now! No, it's a good time to be involved, it's exciting and I'm still enjoying my football and am motivated. While I still can and in a position to be selected, why not?

"Also, after the Euros, to try and stay involved with Northern Ireland for another campaign would mean being with a club for another two years. Although I'm still fit it's up to clubs and people who are willing to give me that opportunity. To have six months at Hearts and for them then to offer me another year, I was delighted. I'm very happy and appreciative that they trusted me to give me another year."

Hughes is now one away from equalling Bobby Charlton's 106 tally with England.

"That's probably the only comparison I could ever have!" he joked. "He's on another level to what I'll ever be on. If that was the case, great, to play that many times for Northern Ireland, to be mentioned in the same sentence in that respect… but I think the comparison ends there."

Hughes and his team-mates are now gearing up for the vital World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan on Saturday. A victory would edge the team closer to a play-off spot on the road to Russia.

"I missed the last one but was there in 2005 when we drew 0-0," he added. "Their manager then (Carlos Alberto) wasn't very nice about our team.

"It will be tough conditions and they will be difficult to play against. We won't underestimate the opposition. Each game becomes more important than the last and you know what is at stake and the rewards you have if you get the win."

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