Belfast Telegraph

Don't take glory for granted, says Aaron as Northern Ireland hit ranking high

By Michael Church

Even Aaron Hughes, 18 years and 99 caps after his international career began, has never been on such a high.

Northern Ireland will go to France for the Euro 2016 finals next week, the country's first major tournament in 30 years, in their highest ever world ranking position.

An 11-match unbeaten record has seen Michael O'Neill's men rise to 25th in the world and while that may not particularly be significant in the eyes of some, it will at least add to the team's increasing confidence ahead of Sunday week's first group game against Poland in Nice.

Northern Ireland have been steadily on the rise over the last couple of years, having fallen as low as 129th four years ago shortly after O'Neill took over.

For Hughes a first appearance on a big international stage will make up for disappointments of the past, particularly eight years ago when Northern Ireland were still in the mix to reach Euro 2008 until the last game, but realistic qualification hopes evaporated following back-to-back defeats against Latvia and Iceland two months earlier.

"We were going so well and then the opportunity for Lawrie Sanchez to go to Fulham came up and the new manager came in," said Hughes of the switch mid-qualifying from Sanchez to Nigel Worthington.

"There's nothing that changed that was right or wrong, but those little changes were enough to knock us out of our stride.

"We went away to Iceland and Latvia and slipped up and if we'd had two draws there it could have been enough.

"I don't think it was anything major, and it might just be that we weren't quite good enough to see it through. On one hand it confirmed the thought that we are good enough to get here and at the same time it showed how fine the margins are that takes you through.

"It was a good experience in the end, not because we didn't qualify but little things like that help."

For Hughes - who is expected to become the first outfield player to win 100 caps for Northern Ireland in tomorrow night's friendly against Slovakia in Trnava - qualification for France is the culmination of a long international career, but for youngsters such as Paddy McNair and Conor McLaughlin a place at a major tournament has been secured at the end of their first-ever campaign.

Hughes and the other senior members of the squad have been quick to stress that success should not be seen as a given.

"It comes across with some humour - that they come in and land at the finals of a major tournament in their first campaign," added Hughes. "It's great for them to be so young and have that experience so early. For the likes of myself and the older lads who have gone through the bad times, we're a lot more appreciative of what we have now.

"It makes the bad times worth it in the end. It's nice for the younger players to be able to come in and I'd love to have been able to do that when I was a kid, but that's the timing of it. It's all done with humour - 'Don't you take it for granted!'"

Belfast Telegraph