Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland can beat Germany or the Netherlands and qualify for Euro 2020: Aaron Hughes

Close watch: Aaron Hughes tracks Germany ace Julian Draxler in Hannover in 2016
Close watch: Aaron Hughes tracks Germany ace Julian Draxler in Hannover in 2016

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes knows exactly what it takes to deliver monumental upsets at Windsor Park. The 39-year-old starred in the iconic victories over England in 2005 and Spain in 2006.

The defender, who retired as a player in June, has also enjoyed some fabulous nights in the famous Belfast stadium in more recent years.

What Hughes never experienced at Windsor, though, was winning against one of Europe's glamour nations under Michael O'Neill.

Yes, there was a 1-0 triumph against Russia in 2013 which brought O'Neill his first victory as boss, but since then bigger guns Portugal and Germany have departed with maximum points in qualifiers.

Next Monday, the mighty Germany are back in town for a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier, and in November, Holland, and the best defender on the planet Virgil van Dijk, will be at Windsor.

Northern Ireland will be huge underdogs in both games and the corresponding Group C fixtures on the road, but Hughes has a hunch that O'Neill's team can deliver at least one almighty shock on home turf having already claimed 12 points out of 12 with four wins against Estonia and Belarus.

"I think the confidence we should have going into these big games off the back of having such a good start in the group will stand us in good stead," said Hughes.

"There's no reason why we can't now go and cause an upset. We are a different side to years ago. We don't just defend for our lives and maybe nick a goal.

"We have a bit about us, we have pace in the side, legs in the side and energy. We have good experience with Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, who has been one of the most consistent players over the past few years with stand-out performances.

"I can see us winning one of the games at Windsor with the atmosphere and I believe we have learnt from big occasions in the past against big nations when we didn't perform as well as we can.

"People might talk about big occasions and say it is nerves for us not playing at our best. I think we are past that, so I don't see any reason why we can't beat Germany or Holland at home and go away and get a point by doing an old fashioned Northern Ireland backs-to-the-wall job. If we do that, I dare say that's us more or less there in the finals.

"There is really good competition for places in the squad and, yes, it will be difficult and there will be obstacles to overcome like lads not playing regularly for their teams, but ultimately, when it comes down to these games, the team will be well prepared and ready. There's no reason why they can't go on and do it."

Hughes is honest enough to say he will miss being out on the pitch when the games against Germany and Holland take place.

"It will be tough. You get those big nights with the emotion and excitement around them. Nothing will replace that," he said.

"Maybe it will, but I can't imagine what would replace that from the experiences I've had so seeing the lads walk out onto the pitch with the atmosphere, that's what I'll miss, though there's bits of the game I won't miss like getting up the next morning after games and feeling a bit sore!

"In the two games in the summer away to Estonia and Belarus, Michael (O'Neill) gave me the chance to go up with an analyst and Andy Cousins (Northern Ireland's head scout) and go and watch the game in the stand.

"You are watching it as a fan in a way but I was still part of the squad and was totally engrossed in it. Up there I knew I wasn't going to get on because I wasn't on the bench, and I genuinely haven't been that into a game as a spectator for a long, long time. I could be a lunatic as a fan!"

Hughes will be at Windsor on Thursday night cheering on his ex-team-mates when they face Luxembourg in a friendly.

The Irish FA will honour the man who played for his country over a 21-year period with a special presentation at half-time when the Northern Ireland fans will no doubt give one of their favourites a rousing reception.

Hughes recently took on the role of ambassador for the 2020 Uefa European Under-19 Championships.

The finals of that tournament will be hosted by Northern Ireland.

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