Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes' Euro 2016 place safe despite Melbourne City exit

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland legend Aaron Hughes will still be going to the Euro 2016 finals despite being released by Melbourne City.

The Australian club announced yesterday that the former Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Fulham defender was one of five players they were allowing to leave after failing to reach the A-League grand final.

The 36-year-old joined the Melbourne outfit last summer but the move Down Under did not work out as he had planned.

Off the pitch, the Cookstown man and his family may have enjoyed the Australian lifestyle, which included their first Christmas Day barbecue, but in footballing terms Hughes found himself frustrated by a lack of action.

In total he only made six appearances for the club, scoring once, when he had hoped to be one of the key figures in Melbourne City's quest for success.

A number of niggly injuries did not help with Hughes not featuring after January.

Even so, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill will take the veteran defender to France, as long as he is fit.

Hughes is no longer a regular starter at international level, but O'Neill still views the ex-Brighton ace as an important player in his squad.

In March, the Northern Ireland boss brought Hughes off the bench in friendlies away to Wales and at home to Slovenia. At Windsor Park, where Hughes received a huge ovation from the fans, he won his 98th cap.

The country's most capped outfield player is expected to bring up his century before the Euro finals thanks to friendlies in Belfast against Belarus in May and away in Slovakia in June.

It is thought that Hughes will retire from the international scene after the European Championships in France, though stated last month he has yet to make his final decision.

What will be just as interesting will be to see if Hughes continues playing club football and where.

Meanwhile, O'Neill is content that Nottingham Forest's Jamie Ward, currently on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, will be fit for the trip to France.

"He's not going to be a risk though I don't think he will play too much between now and the end of the season, if at all," said O'Neill.

"The energy he gives us either out wide or through the middle is great. He is massive for us and we certainly miss him when he is not fit. It is very important for us that he gets back fit and is ready for the finals."

The Northern Ireland boss, keen to have as many Premier League players to choose from as possible, will be interested to learn that Bournemouth are keen to sign Reading's Oliver Norwood in the summer.

Belfast Telegraph