Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes: Reaching century for Northern Ireland 'special'

Defender delighted to see the good times roll for NI

By Michael Church

Aaron Hughes stands on the verge of history as he prepares to make his 100th appearance for Northern Ireland, but for the veteran central defender there will be as much relief as joy when he finally completes his century of caps.

Hughes is set to become the first outfield player in history to play 100 times for Northern Ireland and he could join goalkeeping legend Pat Jennings as the only other player to have reached three figures when Michael O'Neill's team take on Slovakia in Trnava in tomorrow's final pre-Euro 2016 friendly.

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"It's been coming close for a while now, it's just sort of getting there," said the 36-year-old central defender, who made his 99th appearance as a substitute in the 3-0 win over Belarus in Northern Ireland's send-off game at Windsor Park last Friday evening.

"I try not to think about it and I just try to get on with it. It's been creeping into my head now and again and I get asked about it quite a lot too.

"If it happens, I'll be extremely proud but maybe a little bit relieved too. The emotion will be an immense sense of pride that I was able to achieve it. At this time, when it's such a fantastic time for the team and everything, it's quite a nice time to get it as well."

Hughes  made his debut against Slovakia on March 25, 1998 and should he pick up his 100th cap tomorrow it would add a sense of symmetry to a career that has seen numerous highs and lows for the Cookstown native.

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"From being around the squad for so long and playing in the bad days as well as the good days, it does resonate, but now we're in a consistent period of good times," said Hughes.

"Before, we had some great results that popped out here and there, but ultimately the campaigns didn't amount to anything and then we went through periods when we didn't score goals. Those were the really dark days.

"So to have this happen now, and not only have us winning games and to genuinely have the chance to qualify for tournaments, it's just fantastic. It's a great period for football in Northern Ireland regardless and to have the possibility of getting to 100 is special for me."

Qualification for Euro 2016 at the tail end of his career has been a significant bonus for Hughes, who currently has no club after being released at the end of April by Australian side Melbourne City.

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But while that success has come at the latter stages of his time with Northern Ireland, there have been high points along the way.

"The big wins against England and Spain and nights like that stand out for obvious reasons," he said of those famous Windsor Park victories.

"Scoring my first and only goal stands out, my debut too, although not so much the game but I remember little things here and there.

"Getting the captaincy, too, that stands out. They're not bad moments to look back on."

While Hughes will be centre stage when he does pick up his 100th cap for Northern Ireland, the impending trip to France and the down-to-earth nature of his family has ensured he has kept both feet firmly on the ground.

"My family haven't really said much about it because I don't really speak about it a lot and because with the Euros it's such an exciting time and that takes precedent," he added.

"Nothing has greatly been said but I'm sure they'll be very proud, they're proud of what I've done so far and they've followed me throughout and supported me the whole time."

Belfast Telegraph