Michael O'Neill happy to wait for Aaron Hughes to decide on future

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill with veteran defender Aaron Hughes
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill with veteran defender Aaron Hughes

Michael O'Neill will respect whatever decision Aaron Hughes makes on his potential retirement, even if he hopes Sunday is not the veteran's final Northern Ireland game.

Hughes, the home nations' most capped defender ever, is expected to make his 112th appearance for his country, just seven shy of equalling Pat Jennings' Northern Irish record.

Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes in action in the midweek 0-0 draw against Panama

Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes in action in the midweek 0-0 draw against Panama

Such is the 38-year-old's longevity with the Green and White Army, he shared a pitch in Panama with Everton teenager Shayne Lavery, a player who was born after he made his international bow in 1998.

Hughes is yet to determine whether he will carry on his career after this tour, though his club side Hearts have expressed a willingness to offer him fresh terms should he decide to continue.

"I would like Aaron to play as long as possible - he's so close to the record," O'Neill said.

"He can still play, hold his own, I've watched him in the Scottish Premiership this year. Aaron has earned the right to make that decision.

"I think the second half of the season has been good for him. The problem Aaron had was the frustration of the injuries. He was coming back, breaking down, he probably thought, 'I'm not proving to be much value to the club'. That's the type of guy Aaron is.

"I know they would be very keen for him to sign again at Hearts. I think it has to be right for him. I think he needs probably a wee bit of evaluation, 'Do I want to go on?'

"It's 20 years solid of first-team football, hotels, international football. Aaron, for me, is still capable of playing on, not only at club level but international level.

"I genuinely really hope he does. If he made the decision to retire, I'd be disappointed because I want him in the squad but I also respect that what he's given us has been phenomenal."

O'Neill named his strongest possible team against the Panamanians and is likely to bring the youngsters off the bench again having given three players their debuts on Tuesday night.

Of those, Jordan Thompson is searching for a new club having been released by Rangers and Shayne Lavery is yet to make his senior debut for Everton.

"We don't want to just give the guys game time for the sake of it, they have to earn it," O'Neill said of blooding his youngsters.

"We're hoping that this is the first step of many, having had a taste of it it just gives them that wee incentive to go back to their clubs and really push."

One player not in Central America that O'Neill is hoping can also obtain regular first-team football is Norwich goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

One of the Northern Irish stars at Euro 2016, he was his country's first-choice stopper during the qualifiers despite only featuring once for Norwich last season, but the emergence of Trevor Carson and Bailey Peacock-Farrell has provided McGovern with some genuine rivals.

"For his own well-being, mentally in his career, he needs to get out and play and I think he's actively looking to do that," O'Neill said of McGovern.

"He's desperate to play, he's not just going to sit there. It will be an interesting summer.

"He knows if he doesn't play his place in the international team will be under threat if there's other goalkeepers playing.

"Michael's still very much the goalkeeper that, once he's playing, it's up to the other goalkeepers to try and dislodge him."