Belfast Telegraph

Centurion Aaron Hughes thanks team-mates for a special journey

By Paul Ferguson

It was typical of a man who has never once courted the limelight that even in a time of great personal achievement, Aaron Hughes deflected the attention away from himself.

In the dressing room following Northern Ireland's goalless draw with Slovakia, manager Michael O'Neill took a step back and gave the floor to new centurion Hughes.

Having reached 100 caps for his country, after coming on for the injured Craig Cathcart on 30 minutes, and with all the good wishes that came his way into the lead up to the game, it was an emotional moment - overwhelming for the 36-year-old from Cookstown, who made his international debut 18 years ago, incidentally against Slovakia.

But rather than dwell on his landmark caps total he instead thanked his team-mates for giving him the opportunity to go to the Euro 2016 finals in France.

Hughes had initially retired from international football in November 2011 but is so glad he had a change of heart and he actually played in the first Euro 2016 qualifiers when Northern Ireland recorded wins over Hungary, Faroe Islands, Greece and tasted defeat in Romania.

"It was a little emotional," conceded Hughes, now the most capped outfield Northern Ireland player. "I have had a lot of well wishers and a lot of congratulations. I have played it down a bit because I needed to get on the pitch first. But once I got on the pitch I needed to focus.

"I am going to the Euros because of these lads and a hundred things come from that on an individual level that I can look back on but the biggest thing that led to me retiring was because I was so disappointed and disillusioned. I was thinking, 'we are never going to do this (qualify) what's the point?'

"So to be part of that group, they have made it special for me so getting up and speaking to them, it was a little bit emotional because we are a close knit group on and off the pitch. I am very privileged to be part of it."

Manager O'Neill, fulsome in his praise and admiration for a man who has been a credit to his country both on and off the pitch, believes the former Northern Ireland captain will now go down as an all-time great.

Honoured Hughes said: "Those are the biggest compliments you can get from your team-mates, managers or coaches. Those compliments mean the most. They know you behind the scenes so it means a lot for him to say that. For him to think that I am worthy enough to be considered to be up there with the likes of Pat Jennings and even the likes of Jimmy Nicholl makes me feel very privileged."

Due to Hughes not knowing whether he was going to play against Slovakia and so close to the finals in France, he didn't have any family in attendance but best friend from school Stephen Cuddy made the journey.

Hughes admitted: "Stephen said, 'if you come on, you come on, if you don't, you don't. Whatever happens I want to be there'. That was nice."

Belfast Telegraph