Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Northern Ireland's aging stars should learn from Aaron Hughes' example, urges O'Neill

By Gareth Hanna

Michael O'Neill wants his veteran players to learn from Aaron Hughes' experience of international retirement.

The Hearts centre-back called time on his Northern Ireland career seven years ago after 79 international appearances.

Fast forward a reversal of that decision and Hughes has topped the tonne of games for NI.

The older members of O'Neill's current squad, such as Gareth McAuley (38), Chris Brunt (33) and captain Steven Davis (33), maintain a significant influence over the team.

It's little surprise then, that the manager sought their thoughts on their futures before committing his own to the IFA with a bumper six-year deal.

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Michael O’Neill was at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park today to sign a four-year contract extension which will see him continue as Northern Ireland senior men’s international manager until 2024.

"Having spoken to the players, that they believe there is more in the tank, that was a big factor in the decision," O'Neill said.

"(Talks with the players) are going pretty well at the moment. I don't need to name the players. The discussions have been positive. I will respect whatever decision these players make, there's no doubt about that.

"But the best example of a player who when I took this job six years ago had retired was Aaron Hughes. We coaxed him out of retirement and he subsequently went on to play in a major tournament and become the most capped British defender in international football.

"He will look back on the last five years and say it was the best part of his international career so I would urge them to continue to play but equally I will respect any decision that they make."

O'Neill's new role as Chief Football Officer means he has one eye on Northern Ireland's footballing future long after the likes of Hughes, McAuley and Davis will have retired.

It will give the manager a key say in the direction of grass-roots and youth football across NI.

"The important thing is that we grow the team going forward and that we have more players that will come through," he said. "Hopefully we will maintain that competitive element that we're always cometing for qualification.

"The new role gives me a way to improve, to look at ways we do things. It's a fresh set of eyes from how we've done things in the past.

"We want to make sure we continue to develop the game here at grass roots and for the younger players here. We need to see more of our young players come through and have careers in the game and at international level."

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