AMID THE blustery rain, the 48,000 spectators, the carnival of Cristiano Ronaldo’s 100th international cap and the emerging chance that Northern Ireland could make history, even the most astute of players sometimes miss the finer details.
Aaron Hughes, typified by his experience and intelligent ability to read the game, failed to register Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s decision to stay faithful to his starting eleven against Portugal on Tuesday night.
“As it was, Michael saw fit to just keep the lads there – I didn’t actually notice!,” Hughes said.
“That just shows how hard the lads were working.
“When the game’s that tight, no one’s struggling, everyone’s doing a good job, it’s difficult to make substitutions, you maybe don’t have to.”
The night Northern Ireland – unsurprisingly as ever fielding a depleted side – managed to hold Portugal, rated the third best team in the world, away from home will never be forgotten.
The 1-1 result put a heavy dampener on Ronaldo’s parade, while the Real Madrid ace was close to tearing his well-oiled hair out with frustration from being closed down at every turn.
“We had a little bit of luck,” Fulham defender Hughes added.
“The next game is totally different again. After this expectations will be up again that we should beat Azerbaijan but they’ll not be an easy team to beat. They were defending really well against Russia.
“But we’re hoping that our home form will be good and we can pick up a few points and that’ll take us into the back end of the group where we, if we’re still in contention, that would be great.”
Hughes has nailed it. Northern Ireland’s upward curves, as rare as they may seem, tend to take very rapid, downhill turns when the hope of qualification for either a World Cup or a European Championship dwindles into nothing.
If such an encouraging can spin into momentum, Group F could become very entertaining.
“It’s something to build on,” Hughes said.
“We won’t get carried away, certainly, but we’ve set a standard now that we know we can play to. It was important we got the goal rather than just soaking up pressure.
“It was a good counter-attack, Kyle [Lafferty] turned well, put a great ball into Niall [McGinn], who took a great first touch and then went through and finished it.
“When you’ve got something to hang onto it maybe makes you dig in that little bit more.
“We thoroughly deserved the point and we’re a little bit disappointed we didn’t get all three.
“A lot of pride in that we got the reward for our efforts. It was very similar to how we did out in Russia , except unfortunately we didn’t get anything out there.
“There were a lot of the same things: hard work, guys doing their job for the team in that shape, keeping our discipline well.
“This time, rather than chasing the game, we got our noses in front and had something to hang onto. We kept in the game right until the end in Moscow too.
“Of course we are a little bit disappointed that we conceded but we’ve come away with a fantastic point.”