Belfast Telegraph

100 up... all-time great Aaron Hughes has oozed class every step of the way

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes - 100 caps. Somehow it just sounds right, doesn't it? He made his first Northern Ireland appearance in 1998 against Slovakia and almost two decades later should bring up the century when facing the same opposition tomorrow.

And to think the 36-year-old will still have the Euro 2016 finals to come after that.

These are heady days for the man from Cookstown.

Makes a pleasant change from the low points he has faced during the last 18 years.

I've known him right from the start when Lawrie McMenemy gave the bright-eyed teenager his international debut. Aaron was a good guy then and has stayed that way throughout.

I recall his first away trip with Northern Ireland on an end of season game against Spain in Santander.

McMenemy's side lost 4-1 with Hughes one of the few players to emerge with any credit. He continued that trend for years. When Northern Ireland were rubbish, which was way too often at times, you could always rely on Aaron to deliver a steady display.

His versatility in defence was useful to several managers and his centre-back pairing with Stephen Craigan turned into a rock solid partnership which helped the side to famous wins over England and Spain.

He was one of those players you thought would go on forever, so there was surprise when in 2011 he retired from international football after a demoralising attempt to qualify for the last European Championships in Ukraine and Poland.

When Michael O'Neill took charge the next year, number one on his to do list was to entice Aaron back.

"Michael came to see me and we had a chat and talked about the little things that make a difference when it comes to trying to qualify and that maybe hadn't been spoken about before. That resonated and made sense," said Hughes.

"They were exactly what we needed and we had a good chat and he said that maybe I shouldn't call it a day just yet and there may be better days ahead. It maybe took a couple of years to iron out a few creases, but now we've qualified for France and it was a good decision in the end."

Paying tribute to O'Neill's man management skills, Hughes added: "In the last couple of years I haven't played as much club football as I would have hoped and he's always been very supportive. He has always given me confidence that if I can keep myself in good condition and keep myself fit, that I can still bring something to the team in some way. That's important too.

"I would never want to join up with Northern Ireland for the sake of it. I want to be around for a purpose and whether that be to start a game or to help off the bench, I'm happy to do it."

And all in the Northern Ireland squad are delighted to have one of the classiest individuals ever to put on a green shirt still around.

If, as is expected, he retires a second time after the Euro finals, Hughes will go out as a Northern Ireland all-time great.

  • Slovakia v N Ireland international friendly: City Arena Stadium , Saturday, 7.45pm

Belfast Telegraph