Belfast Telegraph

It's time to see sense: Northern Ireland legend Aaron Hughes discusses retirement after high of Belarus victory

 

Aaron Hughes
Aaron Hughes
Fond farewell: Aaron Hughes leads the celebrations after defeating England in 2005
An early appearance in the green shirt against France in 1999

By Paul Ferguson

It was rather apt that Northern Ireland great Aaron Hughes got to officially retire on yet another record-breaking night for Michael O'Neill's men.

Hughes' international career, since making his debut as an eager and talented 18-year-old defender under then boss Lawrie McMenemy in March 1998 against Slovakia, has been packed full of history-defining performances and results.

He captained his country to famous Windsor Park wins over David Beckham's England, future world champions Spain and top Scandinavian outfits Sweden and Denmark.

But it's in recent years, when he came back from his first retirement in 2012, that he has enjoyed his greatest and prolonged success in a green shirt.

Versatile defender Hughes helped Northern Ireland qualify for their first European Championships in 2016 and then was brought in at right-back as the men in green stunned Ukraine in Lyon and reached the knockout stages.

World Cup joy nearly followed with Hughes once again called into action but Northern Ireland were controversially eliminated from the play-offs by Switzerland.

Northern Ireland, having won all four games at the start of a campaign for the first time in history, are in a great position for a crack at next year's Euro finals.

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But they will have to do it without a player who is considered the gentleman of the squad and respected by all who play with or against him for his exemplary behaviour on and off the pitch.

The 39-year-old from Cookstown, who will turn 40 in November, finally called time on an illustrious playing career in an emotional address to his Northern Ireland team-mates after the dramatic, late victory over Belarus on Tuesday night.

Hughes wasn't in O'Neill's matchday squad but the Northern Ireland legend was afforded complete silence and respect as he announced his farewell.

"It was nice to go out on a win like that, and I would like to thank the lads for that," said Hughes, who captained Northern Ireland on 48 occasions and started 107 of his 112 games.

"To start the campaign the way they have done with four wins out of four is fantastic. The atmosphere in the dressing room in Belarus is something I'm going to miss the most. That feeling, that emotion, it's hard to put into words and that's one thing that is going to be very hard, even impossible, to replicate in anything else.

"Thanks to them I was able to go out on a high."

The affable Hughes started his career at Newcastle United, starring for the Magpies as an 18-year-old in the Nou Camp against Barcelona before moving on to enjoy Premier League football at both Aston Villa and Fulham. As his career started to wind down, he moved on to QPR, Brighton, Melbourne City, Kerala Blasters (India) and Hearts.

Hughes played 40 times in Scotland with Hearts, but on only seven occasions last season.

He finishes having played 676 club games, scoring 12 goals.

"I knew at the end of last season I was pretty close to doing it, I just thought maybe one more year and see what it brings," stated Hughes.

"It is time to see a little bit of sense and hang the boots up. I want to start looking forward and look to what is next."

During those memorable Northern Ireland victories over England, Spain and Sweden, Hughes played alongside his trusted lieutenant Stephen Craigan and they formed a terrific partnership.

But Hughes actually selects a recent match, away from those Windsor Park triumphs and Euro 2016 success, as one of his most memorable games in a Northern Ireland shirt.

"I have loads of great memories," confessed Hughes. "You think of all the great nights we had at Windsor, the old Windsor, that was special in itself. It wasn't the most glamorous, the obvious ones you think back to are the England result, the Spain result along with Sweden and Denmark.

"Then you have the Euros, even games like Belarus the other night. On paper they may not be as glamorous as Spain but are significant for what they mean going forward.

"That's why one of my favourite games was the Azerbaijan game away a few years ago. It just typified what we are. It was a tough night in tough conditions, but we found a way to win (Stuart Dallas 1-0).

"We just found what this squad has to do to win and in Belarus it was very similar. The feelings afterwards were very similar too.

"Over 21 years you are going to get lots of highs, certainly there were a few low points in there too. It's all part of the experience and I know it may be a cliché but you really do appreciate the good times and people who have helped you when you have a few knocks."

Hughes now plans to relax and finally enjoy a summer when he doesn't have to worry about pre-season training.

But coaching could definitely be on the horizon in the future as he is taking his badges.

"Maybe a little holiday, just to spend some time with my kids," added Hughes. "It's strange because at this stage of the season you are usually thinking about going back to pre-season and planning different things.

"For the first time ever I'm going to have July and August off. The kids aren't going to be at school, so we could go on holiday with them, and during that time relax. Then, think what's next, see what comes up, start planning and have a few conversations with different people about different things.

"Maybe just let things work out how they are meant to be, rather than stress or accept things that maybe aren't the right thing. I'm trying to get my B Licence finished now so when I get that completed I can move on to my A Licence. At least I have that in the background and looking at other things that interest me."

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of Pat Jennings calling time on a memorable career.

It's fitting that Hughes and Jennings will share similar anniversaries as they are two gentlemen of the game and two wonderful ambassadors on and off the pitch for Northern Ireland.

Hughes can now rightly take his place as a Northern Ireland legend.

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