Irish FA chief hails Hughes and O'Neill's history boys
Irish FA president David Martin has poured praise on Michael O'Neill's history makers and Northern Ireland great Aaron Hughes at the end of another proud and emotional week following the men in green.
Defender Hughes announced his retirement following Tuesday's 1-0 win over Belarus and tributes have flowed in for the 39-year-old who won 112 caps after making his international debut in 1998.
The former Newcastle United ace from Cookstown said an emotional farewell to his international team-mates after the victory in Borisov but he leaves the stage knowing O'Neill and his players are still hungry to qualify for a major tournament again.
Hughes, no stranger to lean times with Northern Ireland, enjoyed the highs of the Euro 2016 adventure and four straight wins leaves the current side on course to make the Euro 2020 finals.
Germany and the Netherlands will have something to say about that but with the Green and White Army roaring their heroes on home and away, O'Neill's side cannot be written off.
Reflecting on Hughes' astonishing career, Martin (below presenting him with his 100th cap), said: "I first met Aaron when he was 18. He had gone from Coagh United to Newcastle United and he has remained a very level-headed man, he has matured greatly and is now a role model for professional players.
"He's a really nice guy.
"He played in the Premier League and at international level the overwhelming majority of his 112 caps were starting roles, very few substitute appearances.
"He's been a great servant to football in Northern Ireland.
"I would like to say a big thank you to him for his great service and wish him all the best for the future."
While Hughes takes a well-earned break and ponders his next role in the game, O'Neill and his men are looking forward to the showdowns against the Germans and Dutch after becoming the first team in Irish FA history to win the opening four matches of a qualifying campaign.
Northern Ireland remain three points clear at the top of Group C after Paddy McNair's 86th-minute strike gave them a 1-0 victory over Belarus in Borisov.
Germany will host the Netherlands in the next set of group games on September 6, before Joachim Low's side travel to face Northern Ireland in Belfast three days later, the same night that the Dutch are away to Estonia.
"We had arguably the toughest draw in all the groups as a third seed and it left us with a difficult assignment," said Irish FA president Martin.
"We were looking at a mini group with Belarus and Estonia and if we could get maximum points from our first four matches we could look forward to the next challenge against Germany and the Netherlands.
"Massive credit to Michael and his players. Michael used his bench to great effect in Estonia and it's often we go a goal down and come back to win.
"We did it in Hungary but it was a significant result.
"Now we have the other mini group. It's a challenge but I'm sure the players will be up for that come September 9.
"We have hope and belief. There has been momentum with the squad from the Euro 2016 qualification campaign which ran into the World Cup qualifiers. While we didn't win any Nations League games the performances were good and now with four matches to go there is everything to play for.
"I believe out of the four games we need one really big performance, possibly at Windsor. We have had our ups and downs but this is a great time to be a supporter.
"We have a very good unit and the manager gets the best out of the players. You can only admire how well organised the group are and what they have achieved under Michael's guidance."
The Irish Football Association reportedly collected around £10m from the Euro 2016 finals and qualification for the 2020 tournament could potentially see an even bigger cash windfall benefit our game.
"Some of the money generated goes back into the game, about a third of the income generated," said Martin.
"It's better to be in the finals than not and while it's too early to talk about figures it would obviously be a great financial boost to the game here."