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Hughes hails Northern Ireland manager O’Neill

Aaron Hughes has paid special tribute to Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill following his retirement from the game.

The 39-year-old former captain announced his decision to hang up his boots after Tuesday’s Euro 2020 qualifying win in Belarus.

Hughes earned 112 caps for his country, a record for an outfield player, and featured in the side that reached the Euro 2016 finals under O’Neill having reversed his 2011 decision to retire from international football.

Hughes, who made his international debut in 1998 and led his country 48 times, said in a statement issued by the Irish FA: “I would like to thank all the managers who have selected me. Each and every one of them played a role and had a big influence.

“From Lawrie McMenemy, who gave me my debut, to Sammy (McIlroy) who gave me the armband, right through Lawrie (Sanchez), Nigel (Worthington) and obviously Michael (O’Neill), who has been more than fantastic with me.

“It would be remiss of me not to mention him in a different sort of way. At the stage of my career when I wasn’t playing as much football he still saw a value in me. He still saw that I could be a good influence with younger players, and he kept me around and gave me a purpose.

“He gave me the opportunity to come back, to be in the squad and ultimately to go to a Euros. For that I will be forever grateful.”

Cookstown-born Hughes came through the ranks at Newcastle and played more than 200 games for the club before spells with Aston Villa and Fulham. He later represented QPR, Brighton, Melbourne City and the Kerala Blasters in India before joining Hearts in 2017.

He made just seven appearances for Hearts last season and was not in the matchday squad against Belarus. His final appearances for Northern Ireland were friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica last summer.

Hughes also thanked his family, support staff and fans before paying tribute to his colleagues.

“Finally, I would like to thank my team-mates,” he said. “The memories that we have had, the highs that we have had, going to a Euros, those are experiences that you can’t have on your own.

“You can only reach those heights if you have great team-mates around you and I have been very lucky to be involved in a group over the past seven or eight years that have worked really hard to be successful.

“They took me to a Euros, they took me to 100 caps and I am very proud to retire having been part of a very special group of Northern Ireland players.”