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Aaron Hughes: Beating Ukraine was the best feeling ever playing for my country

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes had no doubts about it - the Cookstown man had relished playing his previous 100 games for Northern Ireland but he insisted match number 101 was his best yet.

The 36-year-old may have been a surprise selection for the Group C clash against Ukraine in Lyon on Thursday, but nobody should have been shocked when the former Newcastle and Fulham star produced a high class display at right-back in the 2-0 win.

It is what he has done since making his international debut in 1998.

And looking ahead to tomorrow night's Euro 2016 match with Germany, there is every chance that the encounter with the world champions could be even better than what was achieved against Ukraine.

Win and Northern Ireland will definitely make the last 16. Even a draw is likely to be enough.

"Beating Ukraine has to be the top, it's got to be," said Hughes, who is currently without a club after being released by Melbourne City.

"We've had some really good results in the past, the qualification was big, we beat England, we beat Spain and had glory nights like that.

"Obviously they will always be special but to come away with a win, on this stage, it doesn't get much bigger than this.

"You see the scenes at the end, the atmosphere and the emotion, it's the highlight of my career so far.

"And now we are focusing on the Germany game and hopefully getting a result to help us reach the knockout stages.

"The best 24 teams in Europe are here and it's great to be amongst that and competing in that company. If you said to anyone you're in with a chance of going through heading into the last game, most teams would have taken that.

"You don't qualify for a Euros or win a group because you're lucky. You win it because you deserve to win from the hard work over 10 games.

"It was important we remembered that ahead of the Ukraine game and put the disappointment of the defeat to Poland out of the way and just went out and gave a performance that we had in the qualifying campaign. We knew if we did that we would give ourselves a chance."

The 2-0 win over Ukraine saw Hughes complete his first 90 minutes since January for Melbourne in Australia.

"At the end I think everyone was out on their feet out there due to the effort we put in," said Hughes.

"In a way I'm glad it wasn't just me. When you're playing at this level against those players, it only takes a second to produce a bit of quality to change the game.

"You've got to be at it from the first whistle to the last. It's satisfying that I managed to get through a game after not playing in so long. It's just all the hard work between then and now has paid off."

There have been suggestions that Hughes will retire after Euro 2016 finals.

Quizzed on whether he would consider playing in the World Cup qualifying campaign, the veteran defender smiled and said: "l'll try and get through this we'll see. I wanted to come and enjoy this, really relish and enjoy this experience and try and get some game-time, which I've done and that has been fantastic.

"We'll go and try and go as far as we can. Once it's all over I'll see where I'm at and see where I go from there. I'm trying not to think too far ahead at the minute, I just want to enjoy this."

After the wholesale changes made by Michael O'Neill for the Ukraine game, the Northern Ireland fans will be interested to see if the manager changes things around again for the Germany match.

It would certainly be difficult to drop Hughes on his latest performance.

Belfast Telegraph