Belfast Telegraph

Windsor farewell for Northern Ireland's Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Gareth McAuley?

Fantastic four Carroll, Hughes, Baird and McAuley may be playing for country at home for final time

By Steven Beacom

It promises to be quite an occasion at Windsor Park tomorrow night when Northern Ireland face Belarus.

The fans are eagerly anticipating giving Michael O'Neill and his team a rousing send-off in their last home match before Euro 2016 and for some of the players it may be the final time they represent their country at the famous Belfast stadium.

There has been speculation for months about the post-France international futures of the elder statesmen in O'Neill's squad.

While O'Neill and the supporters would love to see heroes like Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Gareth McAuley, all 34 or over, continue to shine in a green shirt, there is also a sense that the Euro 2016 finals would be a glorious way to go out at international level for these fantastic four servants.

If they decide to retire from football at the highest level after Northern Ireland's first major tournament in 30 years, tomorrow night will be their last hurrah at Windsor, a venue where the quartet have become big favourites.

Hughes, who left Melbourne City recently, has been a senior international the longest, making his bow in 1998. He is in line to win his 99th cap against Belarus with the century coming up next weekend in Slovakia.

No outfield player has made more international appearances for Northern Ireland than the 36-year-old.

Down the years he has been a model of consistency across the back four even when the side were under-performing.

Next to play for his country was goalkeeper Carroll in 2000. He had six years in the international wilderness before O'Neill wisely brought him back into the fold.

The Fermanagh man, aged 38, is one of the most popular men in the squad and loved by the fans, who roared his name loud and proud after he saved a penalty in the 1-0 victory over Slovenia at Windsor in March.

Even if tomorrow is his last home appearance for Northern Ireland, he'll play plenty at Windsor next season for his new club Linfield.

Baird, fresh from an excellent FA Cup final appearance as a kid for Southampton against Arsenal, made his debut in 2003.

The 34-year-old started out in defence, latterly moving into a holding midfield position which he filled superbly during the successful qualifying campaign. More of an unsung hero than the others, Northern Ireland fans have grown to respect the influence of the Rasharkin native.

McAuley, 36, could be considered a late bloomer at international level having started out in the Irish League before showing his qualities in professional football and rising through the ranks to the Premier League.

The West Brom star made his debut for his country in 2005 and has become an inspirational figure for both team-mates and fans.

McAuley says he will speak to O'Neill after France to discuss his future. Hughes, Baird and Carroll will do the same.

The four of them are different characters, but having known all of them since their international careers began, and before that in McAuley's case, they've always shared a common desire to deliver for Northern Ireland.

Superb on the field, they are genuine souls off it and will deserve all the cheers coming their way at Windsor Park tomorrow.

Belfast Telegraph