Belfast Telegraph

I've never felt it was time to leave Hughes or McAuley out of Northern Ireland squad: Michael O'Neill

Glory days: Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes celebrate Euro 2016 qualification against Greece
Glory days: Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes celebrate Euro 2016 qualification against Greece
Aaron Hughes with Michael O’Neill on his 100th cap
Wise heads: Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has showered praise on his Northern Ireland old guard, insisting that Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have never let him down.

The two heroes in green and white may be coming to the end of their careers and their club futures are uncertain, but O'Neill is in no mood to cut them adrift from his Northern Ireland panel.

Both men were included in the squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers in Estonia and Belarus and in Hughes' case it was a matter of 'not good enough for club but good enough for his country' yesterday.

The 39-year-old's departure from Hearts was confirmed on the same day O'Neill said his experience was still invaluable to Northern Ireland.

The former Newcastle United and Fulham defender's departure from Tynecastle was expected and it appears highly likely Hughes will call time on his distinguished career.

Another competitive Northern Ireland appearance may not be possible for Britain's most-capped defender but his 113th outing for his country could be in the home friendly against Luxembourg in September.

McAuley, who will turn 40 in December, has been starved of first-team action at Rangers and is even being linked with a move to his hometown club as Larne prepare for life in the Danske Bank Premiership.

Both Hughes and McAuley have endured a rollercoaster ride with Northern Ireland from dark, depressing campaigns to the Euro 2016 adventure in France.

And one of O'Neill's greatest achievements was persuading Hughes not to quit international football in 2011.

The dynamic duo's contribution to the Northern Ireland cause is immense - both on and off the pitch - and O'Neill has never once thought they shouldn't feature in his plans.

"It was a big plus for me to talk Aaron out of retirement as I didn't think I could do that," reflected O'Neill, who insisted there was no contact from West Brom as the Baggies search for a new manager.

"To keep him on board was huge. Gareth (McAuley) was about 32 when I came in, played mostly at right-back and came late to the party as a Premier League player. It's phenomenal how they have enjoyed the best parts of their international career at the latter stages of their careers.

"The great thing about that is that it encourages other players to stay on. They have played through difficult times, darker days, and now the stadium and atmosphere is great and the preparation is great.

"They have been a big part of that. You sometimes think Aaron hasn't much left to offer and then you end up playing him at right-back at the World Cup play-off away in Switzerland and he does a brilliant job for you. In the whole time I've put either player on the pitch, I've never felt age is a factor or it's time to look at it. I can't think of one performance from either player which has left me thinking maybe it's time to look at something else.

"Craig (Cathcart) and Jonny (Evans) are first choice in the centre-back positions but the two lads are still important members of the squad."

It's not O'Neill's position to inform Hughes or McAuley when they should end their careers but the former Shamrock Rovers boss accepts that a players' club career shapes their international future.

"We take it game by game with Hughesy," added O'Neill, who turns 50 in July. "He has just left Hearts. I've left it up to him and he's still keen to be involved with the squad.

"That's important for me because when you have so many younger players in the squad it's invaluable to have players with the experience of Aaron and Gareth McAuley.

"Gareth hasn't started a game since January and had a few injuries but he has looked good in training. We are well aware the players can't go on forever but we aren't yet at the point where we say time's up. That decision is in their hands.

"Their club situation is unresolved and it's a different game than when Pat Jennings went to the World Cup in Mexico in '86. Your club situation dictates your international situation, the same for every player."

There's life in the two old dogs yet but O'Neill also has a few young pups around him as he aims to keep the Euro 2020 campaign on track.

The former Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder is hungry to freshen the squad with promising young players and the arrival of Leeds United teenager Alfie McCalmont at the training camp in Manchester is a reflection of that.

"He's a young lad who has done well," added O'Neill. "He played in the Under-19s for Stephen Friel and he'll be part of Ian Baraclough's Under-21 set-up coming up.

"He has showed up really well. We have done a lot of work to look at where we can find players and I think we are now more proactive than ever in terms of trying to develop a bigger pool of players from the age of 17 to the senior team.

"We won't have seven players in the Premier League all home-born, that won't happen."

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