NI legend Aaron Hughes ‘there through thick and thin’

Northern Ireland footballer Aaron Hughes, who confirmed his retirement plans to UTV last week. Credit: Presseye

Legend, consummate professional, gentleman.

Just a few of the words that have been consistently used to describe one of Northern Ireland football's greatest servants.

As the most capped outfield player for his country with 112 caps and a 21-year international career, it's understandable that the tributes continue to pile in for Aaron Hughes.

Aaron Hughes back when he earned his 50th international cap for NI. Credit: Presseye

I have had the privilege of being on the sidelines watching many of those games that Aaron has played in at Windsor Park and further afield, and I've had the pleasure of interviewing him countless times before and after those games.

I was always met with a smile (even through the hard days when Northern Ireland suffered that goalless drought of 1,298 minutes without scoring) and a humble attitude (even when Northern Ireland reached their highest world ranking of 20th and almost booked their place at football's top table, the World Cup).

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Indeed, even when I spoke to the former Northern Ireland captain just minutes after he announced to his team mates that he was hanging up his boots after that 1-0 win in Belarus, he couldn't understand why I would want an interview with him as he didn't play in the game.

And in typical modest fashion, when I asked what his overriding memory will be from his Northern Ireland career, he didn't talk about his own experiences - he said the special group of lads in the changing room.

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He may not have played in that match against Belarus, but Hughes played a huge part in the squad that made it four wins from four so far in their Euro qualifying campaign, to sit above Germany and the Netherlands in Group C.

But much more than that, he has epitomised what it is to play for your country - through thick and thin.

The 100 international caps milestone has also been and gone for Aaron Hughes. Credit: Presseye

When many players pulled out of friendlies during those wilderness years, Aaron Hughes was there. When young players needed guidance as they started their international careers, Aaron Hughes was there. When Michael O'Neill needed someone to help him get things back on track after years of disappointment for the players and fans, you guessed it - Aaron Hughes was there.

And when they finally got what they deserved by reaching the European Championship finals for the first time ever, Aaron Hughes was there. Just reward for the man who had decided in Estonia eight years ago that he was going to retire.

This time, I don't even think Michael O'Neill could change his mind.

In the thick of NI's celebrations of their achievements in the Euro 2016 campaign. Credit: Presseye

He's already thinking of going to the Euro finals next year as a fan to cheer on Northern Ireland, if they can keep the special momentum going and qualify.

If that's the case, he won't need to buy a single drink as the Green and White Army will want to repay him for the many memories he has given them down through the years.

Aaron Hughes pictured during the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008. Credit: Presseye

With that in mind, I'd like to propose a toast to one of the nicest people I've had the privilege of getting to know - not just in football, but throughout the many different sports I've covered.

Cheers Aaron, happy retirement.

Aaron Hughes in action for Northern Ireland, the team he has represented for 12 years. Credit: Presseye

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