The four home nations’ most capped defender ever Aaron Hughes has vowed to continue playing for Northern Ireland as long as he still has a club career.
Hearts centre-back Hughes turns 39 this year and Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the 110-cap international’s senior Northern Ireland debut.
Having already retired once in 2011 only to be coaxed back by Michael O’Neill’s arrival, Hughes appeared a prime candidate to call it a day again after Northern Ireland missed out on a place in this summer’s World Cup via the play-offs.
However, while there have been no long-term definitive decisions over his future, Hughes was still part of the team that faced South Korea in a friendly at Windsor Park on Saturday.
The former Fulham and Newcastle defender insists he has given little thought to whether he will be available when the Nations League begins in September or the Euros qualifiers start next March, yet he has declared that he would never end his Northern Ireland career while still in club employment.
“I think my decision to play on won’t just be based on playing on for Hearts or Northern Ireland,” explained Hughes, whose deal at Tynecastle expires at the end of this campaign.
“If I do decide to play on and the chance to play for Northern Ireland is still there, I’ll still do it. It’ll not be a case of me playing club football but not international football, it’s more my decision whether or not to continue playing football, that’ll sort itself out.
“The first decision to make at the end of the season is whether or not to continue playing football, then other decisions will follow.
“I’m not even looking past the end of the month, I’m really not. My mind changes so much. One day I’ll get up and think, ‘I can keep going on forever’ then there are other days when you think, ‘It’s time, I’ve had enough’, which is why I’m trying not to think about it too much.”
Club and international matters were not always viewed equally. When Hughes, then playing in the Premier League, initially called it a day with Northern Ireland in 2011 after a series of qualification disappointments, he was disillusioned with the set up.
One chat with the incoming O’Neill changed all that and Hughes went on to feature at Euro 2016, the country’s first finals in 30 years, and became the first outfield player in Northern Ireland’s history to make a century of appearances.
“We would turn up, do the same things every time we met up to try and get a result when the opposition might dictate otherwise, it was just draining me and I’d had enough,” Hughes said of his initial retirement.
“It almost felt like I had been here too long, I needed to go and let new lads come in, maybe a change of scenery.
“I was in that place and it just took an hour-long conversation with Michael, he just addressed all the things I felt needed changed.
“He said, ‘We need to this, we need to do that, we could do this and that better’. I thought, ‘Alright’.
“It was the first time anyone had actually addressed these matters – not trying to be a magician, just simple, basic things that we could do to give us a chance of winning games. I thought, ‘Why not?’”