Belfast Telegraph

Serbia v Northern Ireland: Hughes hoping it will be a lucky 13th

By Steven Beacom

It was 13 years ago today. Aaron Hughes stepped on to Windsor Park ready to make his international debut.

AARON wants happy anniversary BY STEVEN BEACOM

in belgradeLeading from the front: Northern Ireland skipper Aaron Hughes leads the rest of the squad around the Red Star stadium in Belgrade last nightdarren kidd/pRESSEYE

The appearance of the teenager from Cookstown was somewhat overshadowed though by another man starting his Northern Ireland career — Lawrie McMenemy.

You may recall that the former Southampton boss took over when Bryan Hamilton was dumped by the Irish FA.

Our own legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings and ex-Scottish striker Joe Jordan, back in the news recently thanks to Gennaro Gattuso losing his head and planting it on the Spurs coach, made up the “dream team”.

More of a nightmare really, with poor results and player unrest, dominating McMenemy's time in charge.

He did win that first game though, beating Slovakia 1-0 in Belfast, and we should be thankful to Lawrie for introducing Hughes to the international arena, where he has excelled ever since.

For the record Aaron, then just 18, enjoyed a steady debut and has been delivering solid performances ever since, on his way to 75 caps.

Understated and modest to a fault, Hughes is one of those players you don't notice too much during a match, as he gets on with his job efficiently and effectively.

It's when he's not there, such as during last month's 3-0 defeat to Scotland in Dublin, that the Fulham defender's importance to the side is truly realised.

Hughes brings a sense of control and an ability to read the game, honed by playing at the top level of English football since way back in November 1997, when he became Newcastle United's youngest debutant in Europe, in of all places the Nou Camp.

From Barcelona to Belgrade, where Hughes will face Serbia in tonight's vital European Championship qualifier, it's been quite a journey for the 31-year-old.

But something has been missing that he's desperate to put right — playing in the finals of a major championship.

“I want to get to a major championship more than anything and hopefully it will be this time,” said Hughes on the eve of tonight's important Group C game with Serbia.

“Italy may be favourites in our group but I do believe we have as good a chance as anyone. We are right in the mix. We have vital games coming up against Serbia and then at home to Slovenia on Tuesday and we will know more where we stand after that.

“Serbia are a really good side, but if we can produce the performance that we gave to win in Slovenia at the start of the campaign, we can get something from the game.”

If Hughes was surprised by manager Nigel Worthington's shock team selection for the Serbian game, he wasn't showing it in yesterday's press conference.

For a change he won't be playing alongside his old buddy Stephen Craigan at the heart of defence — a partnership which has blossomed in the past four campaigns.

“Stephen has every right to be disappointed, but he's a profes

sional and has accepted it,” explained Hughes, who will pair up with Gareth McAuley tonight, two graduates of the Lisburn Youth team.

On the manager's selection, the former Aston Villa ace said: “Why not, he's got confidence in the young players and there is a good mix of experience and youth in there. We have players who know about playing away from home in international football and we have players with lots of energy.

“Personally I have no worries whatsoever about anyone in the side. We have trained well this week with the right attitude and a good tempo and now we are ready to go.”

And that includes baby-faced wide midfielder Johnny Gorman from Wolves.

Hughes added: “Johnny came on in the Slovenia game and did very well at a time when we were under pressure.

“He may not have the experience but the flip side is that he has youth on his side and will have plenty of energy.”

Just like Hughes 13 years ago.

“I don't really remember that first game. I do recall that we played in the red and white kit, but not much else bar the celebrations after we scored.”

Hughes is happy that Craven Cottage club mate Chris Baird, on the occasion of his 50th cap, takes the armband tonight.

Aaron will resume captaincy duties when Slovenia are in Belfast.

Behind closed doors games

Juventus v Lecce: Manchester City star Mario Balotelli, when with Inter Milan in 2009, was subjected to racial abuse from Juventus fans during a Serie A game, prompting the football authorities to order the Turin club to play a match behind closed doors. It was decided that a Serie A match with Lecce would not be open to fans. The Italian Football Federation described the abuse suffered by Balotelli as “deplorable.”

Dinamo Zagreb v Ajax: Dinamo Zagreb played Ajax behind closed doors in the 2009-10 Europa League as a result of a Uefa ban imposed due to the behaviour of their supporters in a match at Romanian side Timisoara. Uefa also deducted three points from the Croatian club. On appeal, the three point deduction was replaced with a €75,000 fine and a three-year suspended ban from European competition.

Atalanta v AC Milan: Atalanta played AC Milan behind closed doors after the original match in 2007 was abandoned due to crowd trouble. The match was halted after just seven minutes when some Atalanta fans tried to break through the perimeter fence. Supporters had also clashed with police before kick-off.

Mexico: In Mexico’s top flight in 2009, teams had to play the penultimate round of league games behind closed doors due to a swine flu outbreak. Games taking place in areas which were particularly badly affected by the outbreak were also played behind closed doors the following week.

Dinamo Bucuresti v Slovan Liberec: Romanian club Dinamo Bucuresti were forced to play two European games behind closed doors as a result of their match against Czech side Slovan Liberec in August 2009 being abandoned with a couple of minutes still remaining due to a pitch invasion by home supporters with the visitors 2-0 ahead. Uefa awarded Liberec a 3-0 win but Dinamo went through on penalties after a 3-0 away victory.

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