Belfast Telegraph

Hughes in last chance saloon but play-off spot is realistic

By Julian Taylor

Aaron Hughes admits that this upcoming Euro 2016 qualifying campaign could well be last chance saloon territory for him.

The veteran Northern Ireland defender has amassed 90 caps for his country in a career which has experienced the highs of victory over England and Spain – and unforeseen shockers against lower-ranked nations.

While he's back in boss Michael O'Neill's fold for perhaps a fruitful adventure, the clock is realistically ticking on a personal tour of duty.

Therefore, the Brighton and Hove Albion stalwart is just grateful to be in the frame for the showdown against Hungary tomorrow.

"I'd like to think I've always prepared properly. But maybe the awareness is raised, now that this could be my last campaign. It doesn't just flick a switch though because I'd like to think I've been switched on for all the years I've played," said Hughes.

"There was a point in time when I was done and dusted and didn't think I'd be here, but that changed quite quickly and after I made the U-turn this was in my plans."

Hughes should form a defensive assembly line in Budapest, consisting of fellow veterans Gareth McAuley and Chris Baird. Is this the last opportunity for the senior men to go to a major tournament?

"You'd have to speak to those lads for what they're thinking, whether they're going for another World Cup, but it's possible. Look at the 43-year-old guy in the World Cup (Columbian Faryd Mondragon)," he added.

"It's always going to be around when you're at the age I'm at, but regardless of whether this was my second campaign or my last, this is as good a chance as we've had in a long time."

Northern Ireland's unpredictability when it comes to minnows – including fellow Group F opponents Faroe Islands – concerns Hughes. He does insist there's more to this than meets the eye, looking at the group overall.

"That's something we get labelled with, being able to play against the big teams and then when it comes to the smaller teams crumbling," he says.

"I don't think that's too fair. When you play against a so-called bigger nation and get a result it's so magnified compared to if you do it against one of the smaller nations. Then if you don't get a result against one of the smaller nations it's magnified in the same way.

"People are looking at the Faroes as the team everyone will beat, but that won't necessarily be the case as we found out a few years ago. They made it hard and we did well to come out with a 1-1 draw.

"Any perception or hype of the team we are playing is always created outside the team – fans, the press, media – building it up as a must-win or an underdogs' situation."

With third place in the group offering a play-off spot for France, Hughes feels this is within Northern Ireland's remit.

"That maybe throws the group wide open," he added. Greece are consistent and know what it takes to get through, but everyone else on any given night can beat each other."

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