Belfast Telegraph

Emotional Aaron Hughes dreaming of World Cup place with Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Aaron Hughes revealed he was full of emotion after another memorable night at Windsor Park with Northern Ireland moving closer to qualification for the World Cup finals.

The 37-year-old was outstanding during Monday's 2-0 victory against the Czech Republic, playing a crucial role as Michael O'Neill's side kept their seventh clean sheet in eight group games.

The win over the Czechs, combined with Friday's 3-0 success in San Marino, guaranteed a second place finish and sets up a World Cup play-off.

"After you finish a double header and you have won both games there are a lot of emotions; relief, happiness, elation, and you're feeling tired too. It's an intense 10 days," said Hearts defender Hughes.

"I'm enjoying it and enjoying still being part of it. Nights like the one against the Czechs and the atmosphere and the feeling you get from being involved in these games is incredible.

"Also being part of this group of lads and this squad and the whole set-up, it's a great time to be here. I'm trying to take in as much as I can."

The former Newcastle and Fulham ace admitted that following up the glory of the Euro 2016 experience was going to be difficult, but suggests Northern Ireland have done it in style.

"We always speak about the position we are in and realising where a good result could put us," he said.

"In the last campaign that's what we did. We learnt a lot from the Euros. The hardest thing was to show we could still do it, and to be where we are now is really, really satisfying."

Hughes believes discipline and concentration have been the key elements to Northern Ireland's remarkable defensive record in the World Cup qualifiers.

They have only conceded two goals - both to Germany - and never looked as though they would be breached by the opposition on Monday evening.

"Keeping your shape and discipline is massively importantly," said Hughes, who now has 108 caps to his name.

"If you start hunting for the ball and get frustrated and lose your discipline, good teams will come through you and open you up.

"The two chances that we had we took them really well, and that gave us a cushion that allowed us to sit a little more and absorb any pressure.

"It's not just physical, it's concentration levels for 90 minutes and to get through that it's a credit to all the lads and how much hard work they put into it, not just in the games but also in training leading up to them.

"A lot of the stuff we are doing now we have been doing for a few years. It's what got us to the Euros and we knew we needed that sort of discipline to get us through this group too. It's great to look at the stats and the numbers and is testament to the hard work of the team."

Hughes relished having Jonny Evans as his partner in central defence.

"I love playing alongside Jonny Evans. It's great to play with a player of that quality," he said.

"He's fantastic. You can see that by the interest in him during the transfer window. It's not just a recent thing because Jonny has been at that level for so long. He is an easy player to play alongside."

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