Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes’ status as Northern Ireland legend assured

By Steven Beacom

There is a real end of an era feel to Northern Ireland’s forthcoming international double header. You tend to get that when a qualifying campaign is about to finish, but this one more than most has an out with the old, in with the new edge to it.

We know Aaron Hughes is retiring. Others may follow the captain’s lead.

Then there is Nigel Worthington’s position. Just about everyone has had their say on that in the past month. I half expected Rihanna to join the debate when she was here last week.

Some fans want Nigel out so badly, they would prefer her to be the Northern Ireland boss.

I suppose she knows how to create a stir in a field and let’s face it, she couldn’t be any worse than Lawrie McMenemy!

The best thing he did as manager was give Aaron his international debut in 1998 in a 1-0 home victory over Slovakia. The fresh faced teenager produced a solid display. We would get used to that. Hughes has been delivering committed and consistent performances for Northern Ireland ever since, winning 79 caps. Due to injury he won't add to that tally at Windsor Park against Estonia this week or in Italy next.

Unless to quote Aaron himself “a miracle happens” and Worthington’s team make the Euro 2012 play-offs, or he has a dramatic change of heart, his last international outing is destined to be the pitiful 4-1 defeat in Tallinn last month. Pity. He deserved to go out on a higher note than that.

You meet many types in this game. Few in my experience have been as unassuming off the pitch as the 31-year-old from Cookstown. And since I’ve been watching Northern Ireland, as a supporter and reporter, few have been better on it.

When Aaron announced he was retiring from Northern Ireland duty, I was asked on radio if he would go down as an all-time great for our wee country.

“Without a doubt,” I replied, even though the modest Hughes would dispute such a claim.

I'd have no hesitation in picking him in my Northern Ireland XI from the players that I’ve witnessed in the flesh since the early 80s, alongside legends such as Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong and David Healy.

Hughes has enjoyed a fine club career in the Premier League with Newcastle, Aston Villa and Fulham and he wants that to continue, and to spend more time with his wife and two young daughters, hence his decision to call it quits on the international scene.

He has left a host of wonderful memories for the Northern Ireland fans, brilliantly captaining the team to famous triumphs over England, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Poland and doing so in a manner that marked him out as a magnificent ambassador for Northern Ireland. He led by example.

Versatile Hughes played across the back four at the highest level, latterly enjoying an excellent central defensive partnership with Stephen Craigan. He read the game superbly, made countless perfectly timed tackles and had the pace to get team-mates out of trouble. He could also play a bit and had that reassuring quality of not making mistakes.

I’ve thought for years that we’ll only truly realise Aaron’s value when he is no longer around. Unfortunately we’re now going to find out how much we relied on him.

Apart from the player, there is the gentleman that is Aaron Hughes. I've known him since the late 90s when he was just a shy kid. He has flourished as a footballer and as a person, growing in confidence, becoming more adept with the media side of being captain of his country and maintaining a professionalism that started when he was an outstanding hockey player at Cookstown High.

He's a credit to his family and his profession, unlike others who shame the beautiful game. You can tell I have a lot of time for him. So much so that some people have asked me if I named my son after him.

The answer is no. But I always add: “If my Aaron turns out like Aaron Hughes I’ll be happy.”

Though he can’t play on Friday night at Windsor, I hope he is there, as an IFA guest, to receive the acclaim and appreciation from the fans.

He deserves it.

Belfast Telegraph


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