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Hughes not ready to give up living his Northern Ireland dream


Stuck in: Aaron Hughes tussles with Julian Draxler during the clash between Northern Ireland and Germany in Hannover

Stuck in: Aaron Hughes tussles with Julian Draxler during the clash between Northern Ireland and Germany in Hannover

AFP/Getty Images

Stuck in: Aaron Hughes tussles with Julian Draxler during the clash between Northern Ireland and Germany in Hannover

During an illustrious career dating back to 1997, when he made his Newcastle United debut at the Nou Camp as a recently turned 18-year-old in a Champions League clash with Barcelona, Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes has enjoyed many magical moments on the football pitch.

He was a Premier League regular for 16 years, starred in a Europa League final for Fulham, captained his country to sensational wins over England and Spain at Windsor Park, won his 100th international cap against Slovakia earlier this year and over the summer played a key role, at 36 years of age, as Northern Ireland progressed to the knock-out stages of Euro 2016.

Yet as he walked off the pitch in Hannover on Tuesday night after performing courageously in the 2-0 defeat against World champions Germany, before preparing for a 12-hour journey back to Kochi to join up with his new Indian club Kerala Blasters FC, Cookstown man Hughes, who will be 37 next month, proclaimed that he is "living the dream".

"I truly am," insisted Hughes, who also played for Aston Villa in the Premier League.

"I mean that sincerely. That's why I didn't retire after the Euros. After playing in the Euros and getting a taste once again of playing in the big stadiums, against the big teams, I really enjoyed that and I thought why should I let that all go? I still want to perform on the big stage and I really enjoyed playing against Germany again."

Hughes, despite having only played one league game with Kerala Blasters this season, was thrust into action against Thomas Muller and co, performing alongside Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley in a five-man Northern Ireland defence.

Even though Michael O'Neill's men were beaten, Hughes loved every moment of the occasion, playing in front of 46,000 fans in the HDI Arena with the passionate Northern Ireland supporters out-singing their German counterparts throughout the match.

"Michael (O'Neill) had a word with me the other day and asked how I was feeling. He told me his plans for the match and I felt okay with everything he was saying. The thing about playing in India is that it is hot and humid - they are really tough conditions to play in, so to come to Belfast and then Hannover - the fresh air is fantastic," he said.

"At my age and after the Euros I know how to look after myself when I'm not playing - I know what to do to keep myself fit for games like this. Now the league season has started in India it's going to be good to be involved in regular competitive action again so I'm looking forward to the next couple of months.

"We are very much in the mix for World Cup qualification and it was another reason why I didn't want to walk away from international football. I thought to myself why retire when the team is at a peak? The Euros were obviously a high but I still think there is more to come from the squad. You look at the group and there is a realistic chance of pushing on."

For Hughes, India, after a disappointing spell with Melbourne City last season, where he hardly featured, has so far been a wonderful experience and he is really enjoying the different lifestyle.

Tonight, Hughes, a marquee signing by Kerala Blasters, will make his home debut against Mumbai less than 72 hours after playing against Germany.

"I had a full day's travel on Wednesday with three flights totalling 12 hours and then it was recovery on Thursday," explained Hughes.

"I'm really looking forward to playing at home for the first time. My first game a couple of weeks ago was away so it will be nice to play in front of our home fans. The boys, since I've been on international duty, have lost and drawn one, so it would be great if we could get our first win.

"And my team-mates have been great with me. One of them asked for my shirt from the Germany game, so I didn't swap it and I brought it back for him."

Belfast Telegraph