Ex-Hearts defender Aaron Hughes announces his retirement from football after Northern Ireland win
Former Hearts defender Aaron Hughes confirmed his retirement from football with an emotional speech in the Northern Ireland dressing room following last night's win in Belarus.
The 39-year-old called time on a 22-year career and retires as the most capped British defender of all time with 112 international appearances. He was part of national coach Michael O'Neill's squad but did not play in Belarus or in Estonia at the weekend.
His final professional football outing came last month for Hearts against Celtic in the last Premiership game of the Scottish season. He officially left Tynecastle Park when his contract expired on May 31.
Hughes addressed the Northern Ireland players late last night following Paddy McNair's winning goal in Borisov. The 1-0 victory kept Michael O'Neill's side top of their European Championship qualifying group with four wins from four and marked the end of Hughes' playing career.
"I knew this was coming. I always had it in the back of my mind that this was going to be my last season," he said. "It's a great way to go, to just be involved with the squad, be around this group of lads and the staff. As I said in there [the dressing room], to see a Paddy McNair goal, I can now retire a happy man."
The centre-back paid tribute to Northern Ireland's camaraderie having been talked out of international retirement by O'Neill in 2012. He went on to represent his country at the 2016 European Championship and joined Hearts the following year.
"It's been incredible, the last few years. Obviously the Euros was massive," added Hughes. "People maybe thought the Euros was a one-hit wonder and had a look at what's coming next. I think, through the World Cup campaign, we proved we could do it again. This squad is as good a squad as there has been in my time, if not as good a squad as there has ever been in Northern Ireland.
"There is potential there to go on and achieve big things. It's just been a privilege for me to be around. At this stage of my career, to still be in a dressing-room environment has been special for me. It's a nice way to wrap it up - four wins out of four and top of the group. I'll keep my fingers crossed now for the rest of the group."
He admitted he will miss the environment and bond within the Northen Irish camp. "It's just the group of lads. It's a unique environment, it always has been. It's even better now. It's special.
"The guys were saying how unique and special it is and you don't get that everywhere. I've been in a lot of dressing rooms and they're not all like this. It shows on nights when you're looking for something, it's tough and there's nothing in the game - it takes that moment of individual brilliance from Paddy to put it away.
"It just took grit and determination and old-fashioned Northern Ireland spirit, if you like, on top of all the good play. That's what wins us the game. That's what we've always had."
Should his country reach next summer's Euro 2020 finals, Hughes now plans to attend as a fan. "Yeah, I can enjoy myself a bit more now and maybe get involved in some of the other shenanigans. I don't have to be so disciplined," he told Ulster Television.
"From the start of this campaign, the manager talked about taking 12 points out of 12, which was going to be a tough task. It sets us up so well for the rest of the group and it means we can go and enjoy the summer, look forward to the [next] games and play them like cup finals.
"Even beyond that, you never know what can happen with the play-off positions. It's a great position to be in. This has been fantastic to be around, not just for the last few months but the last couple of years. It's a nice way for me to walk away now."
Team-mate Steven Davis paid tribute to Hughes and said has become a Northern Ireland legend since making his debut back in 1998. "Aaron spoke to us after the game and he was a little bit emotional, which is understandable," said the Rangers midfielder.
"He has been a huge player for us over many years, such a consistent performer, and he will be remembered as a proper legend. Aaron still looks as if he could play on for a couple more years, but if he has made a decision to retire. We've got to respect that and wish him well."