Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes vows to get on with the task ahead

Aaron Hughes was thrilled to bank three priceless points in Slovenia but he knows that rich rewards are still well out of reach.

Euro 2012 qualifying Group C promises to be a roller-coaster ride for all the teams and no opponent will be guilty of complacency against Northern Ireland after their heroics in Maribor.

Many critics thought they would be lambs to the slaughter against a Slovenia side who just clambered off the World Cup stage.

But the players rose to the formidable challenge — not least the defence that was once against superbly marshalled by the outstanding Hughes and captain for the night, Stephen Craigan.

In fact, the stunning 1-0 win was an appropriate tribute to Motherwell skipper Craigan who has served his country with distinction.

But Fulham defender Hughes knows the players have to bring their heads down from the clouds.

Tougher tests lie ahead — particularly their next outing in the group, against Italy at Windsor Park on Friday, October 8.

But the Italians should start to sweat a little as an evening game at Windsor, under the floodlights, often means pain for visiting sides.

“Over the past few years we have picked up great results in evening matches, as opposed to Saturday afternoons,” said Hughes who won his 72nd cap on Friday night.

“It’s just one of those things. Friday night was good enough for us against Slovenia but there is no logical reason why Friday night time shouldn’t have a big affect on the outcome of a game.

“In Slovenia I thought we lost track of what day it was as we arrived good and early! The Friday and Tuesday fixtures were possibly decided on to give players time to get back to their clubs for the weekend but we have performed well in night games at Windsor and hopefully that trend continues!

“We are going into the Italy game in good heart but we know how tough a challenge it is going to be.”

Northern Ireland’s dazzling show in the Ljudski Vrt Stadium has only deepened Hughes’ desire to get to a major tournament.

But the Cookstown man knows a few more backs to the wall performances will be needed to make it to the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine.

“We know our strengths, we also know our weaknesses, we know what works for us,” he added.

“If we stick to that, hopefully we can have a successful campaign and take that extra step to actually get to a finals. How good would that be? It's a tough group, but that doesn’t lower expectations. We are setting out to qualify, no matter how difficult that might be.

“Whatever anyone else thinks outside the camp is really irrelevant to what we want to do. If we approach every game properly and do things right, we will have as good a chance as ever.”

With Craig Cathcart, Corry Evans and Johnny Gorman making their competitive debuts, Hughes can see a healthy blend of youth and experience in Nigel Worthington’s squad.

“We've got lads who have been about for a couple of campaigns and they are still young players,” he said.

“Add that experience to the enthusiasm and promise of the young lads coming through, you have that nice mix.”

Meanwhile, Grant McCann may be 30, but he had the energy of a teenager as he played 20 minutes of Peterborough United’s 1-0 defeat at Tranmere Rovers on Saturday — shortly after returning from Slovenia.

Belfast Telegraph

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