Hearts’ Aaron Hughes could make surprise start for Northern Ireland

Aaron Hughes' last appearance for Hearts was on September 30. Pic: TSPL
Aaron Hughes' last appearance for Hearts was on September 30. Pic: TSPL
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Hearts defender Aaron Hughes could make a surprise appearance for Northern Ireland tonight in their World Cup qualification play-off against Switzerland.

Hughes, who celebrated his 38th birthday yesterday, has not played for the Jambos since September 30 when he limped off against Dundee after just seven minutes with a calf injury.

Hearts striker Kyle Lafferty is expected to lead the line for Northern Ireland tonight against the Swiss. Pic: PA

Hearts striker Kyle Lafferty is expected to lead the line for Northern Ireland tonight against the Swiss. Pic: PA

Although Hearts manager Craig Levein suggested at the weekend that Hughes would only be fit to play the second leg against the Swiss this Sunday, the former Newcastle player trained fully yesterday and could line up alongside Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans in a three-man central defence, with Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill admitting he is contention to play.

If Hughes was to play in Belfast, he would win his 109th cap and surpass England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore as the most capped defender in British history.

Hughes’ Hearts team-mate, striker Kyle Lafferty, is expected to lead the line against the Swiss.

Switzerland are warm favourites to progress over the two legs, but O’Neill senses Northern Ireland – who have not played at the World Cup since 1986 – are ready to seize their moment and has told his players to ensure they have no regrets.

“I see in this squad an opportunity they don’t want to waste,” O’Neill, whose assistant is Hearts coach Austin MacPhee, said. “But equally they’ve done everything so far and I think they will do everything in the next two games to make it a reality.

“These players have experienced a lot of good and bad.

“The one thing I would say to them is don’t fear the situation, embrace the situation and make sure whatever happens when you look back there are no regrets.

“We all know the prize is massive and what it means to everyone in Northern Ireland, the players, staff, Irish Football Association, everyone in Northern Ireland.

“Our focus is on how we get through the two games and I see a reassurance in the players and self-belief that has grown over a period of three to four years and put them in this position.”