Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has revealed that veteran Hearts centre-half Aaron Hughes may struggle to make his country’s World Cup play-off matches next month.
The Irish play Germany and Norway this week and have guaranteed second place in Group C, but only eight of the nine group runners-up will be in November’s play-offs. However, it would take an unlikely series of results for them to miss out.
Hughes, on 108 caps, is one appearance short of becoming the home nations’ most capped defender ever, a record he currently holds with Bobby Moore, but he limped off after just seven minutes with a calf complaints for Hearts against Dundee in a 2-1 defeat last weekend.
At 37, that could conceivably mean Hughes has played his final game for his country if O’Neill’s side do not make it to Russia and he decides to call it a day.
Asked if Hughes would be back in time for the play-offs, O’Neill replied: “It’s difficult to tell. I think you have to digest the whole scan when he goes back to his club.
“It’s not really our responsibility to get him fit, Hearts want him fit as well. He certainly would come into the doubtful category I would say.
“We’re hopeful that won’t be the case but it may well be that within four weeks, he would probably be right on the edge if he was to make it.
“We feared the worst (but) Aaron being Aaron travelled as normal. Most players in that scenario would just pull out but he travelled and had a scan on Monday and it showed something wasn’t right.
“It’s a big blow to us because we’re light in that department with Craig (Cathcart) injured and Gareth (McAuley) just back from his injury.”
Hughes had appeared in his country’s past three qualifiers, during which time they did not concede, and he has also featured in both of Northern Ireland’s games against Germany over the past 16 months.