Belfast Telegraph

McAuley and Hughes can play another international cycle for NI, insists O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has welcomed the commitment shown to the Northern Ireland cause by experienced duo Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley.

Hearts defender Hughes and West Brom ace McAuley are both 38-years-old and in the autumn of their careers, but there is no desire to pull down the curtain on their international involvement.

In fact, both men are included in the squad for the friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.

Manager O'Neill has drafted young players into his panel including Crusaders star Gavin Whyte, Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Scunthorpe loanee Cameron McGeehan, but while a number of elder statesmen are rested, including captain Steven Davis, seasoned campaigners Hughes, McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart are travelling.

West Brom ace Chris Brunt looks unlikely to add to his 65 caps as he ponders international retirement, but McAuley and Hughes still want to pull on the Northern Ireland jersey and feature against Panama on May 30 and Costa Rica on June 3.

Former Shamrock Rovers chief O'Neill hopes his rising stars can step up to the mark but he's also thrilled the squad can boast significant experience.

"I spoke to all of the players to gauge feelings and, straight away, Aaron (Hughes), Gareth (McAuley), Jonny (Evans) and Craig (Cathcart) were all very keen," said O'Neill.

"That was a big positive, to have that experience in the back four or three, whatever system we decide to play.

"For the previous tour of South America, we only had Aaron Hughes.

"I still think we can put on the pitch an experienced team, although with a little bit of inexperience around it for that freshness with the 22 players.

"You look at Aaron and Gareth and they value every international cap. Jonny has spoken of how he appreciates it now more than ever and wants to get to 100 caps as soon as possible. So that's nice to hear from the senior players and we have experienced names in that squad, along with the opportunity to get caps to the likes of George Saville and some others.

"Both Aaron and Gareth have indicated to me as long as they are playing club football they will play international football."

Hughes and McAuley, who have 187 caps between them, remain significant pieces in the Northern Ireland jigsaw, according to O'Neill.

"I'm hoping Aaron and Gareth both have another international cycle over the next few years," he added. "We can protect them in terms of the games they play and a lot depends around each player's situation.

"You look at Gareth now in the Championship with West Brom and, suddenly, there are more games and the demands are higher in terms of the frequency.

"But Gareth and Aaron are now players who need to be playing every week to be valuable to a club and, equally, to the international squad. Obviously it's difficult to play international football if not affiliated to a club.

"I know Aaron has an option to stay on at Hearts but his decision is not financially-based or anything else other than what suits his life at this moment in time.

"He has hopped about in recent years but seems settled at Hearts and has been excellent.

"I don't see a player, when I look at Aaron at Hearts, that has just one more season in him and, given how he looks after himself, could play on until he is 40-years-old.

"He seems to be over the niggly injuries, which played a big decision in his choice to go forward, and I would like to see Aaron play on as he has a lot to offer."

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