Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland duo Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes set to extend international careers after O'Neill's decision to stay

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill's decision to stay on as Northern Ireland manager has persuaded veteran defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes to carry on with their careers at the highest level.

Still nursing the disappointment of not qualifying for this year's World Cup finals, it is just the lift the squad and the supporters need as they approach the new international year.

Speculation has been rife about the future of Northern Ireland's elder statesmen since the dream of going to Russia was crushed in the November play-off defeat to Switzerland.

O'Neill was also the subject of numerous headlines until he rejected the chance to manage Scotland and opted to stick with Northern Ireland, signing a new deal until 2024 worth over £4 million.

With O'Neill staying put, McAuley and Hughes, who are both 38, are set to do the same - news that will be warmly welcomed by fans who see the duo as national heroes.

O’Neill is hopeful that Chris Brunt, 33, will not enter international retirement for at least another campaign, with the Northern Ireland boss determined to lead the team to their second consecutive European Championship finals in 2020.

With Southampton’s Steven Davis, also 33, eager to captain his country to another major tournament and O’Neill bringing in new faces, the squad is set to have a blend of energy and experience for the challenges ahead.

They start with a friendly at home to South Korea on March 24 before O’Neill’s men go on a tour to Central America to play Panama and Costa Rica in the summer. From September to November there will be Uefa Nations Cup matches against Austria and Bosnia & Herzegovina and friendlies versus Israel and the Republic of Ireland.

It is a busy calendar before Euro 2020 qualifying begins next March with O’Neill intent on approaching it with his strongest squad ever.

He has lined up Huddersfield Town and ex-Republic of Ireland under-21 winger Sean Scannell, currently injured, to join the Northern Ireland ranks and has held talks with Rangers winger Sean Goss about coming on board.

Knowing that Hughes and McAuley plan to stick around is key to O’Neill, who believes young players can benefit from their knowledge.

Hearts ace Hughes is the UK’s most capped defender with 109 appearances to his name. He actually retired from international football in 2011 only for O’Neill to bring him back when he took over as boss. Not guaranteed a starting place any more, O’Neill has a habit of using the Cookstown native in big games.

McAuley will forever be revered for scoring against Ukraine in the Euro 2016 finals. The West Brom centre-back started his international career at the age of 25 and has now amassed 76 caps.

Both Hughes and McAuley are out of contract at the end of the season with their clubs, but won’t be short of takers if they are not offered new deals. Brunt is in a similar situation at the Hawthorns.

O’Neill appreciates that for older players, travelling the globe does not hold the same appeal as it did in their younger days, and suggested at his press conference to mark his new deal they won’t have to feature in all matches, but he will want them for the important games. The 48-year-old is due to announce his squad for the South Korea match on Monday at Windsor Park.

Belfast Telegraph

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