NORTHERN IRELAND: Club life key for Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley

Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley. Pic by Pacemaker.
Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley. Pic by Pacemaker.

Club games can lead to continued international gains for experienced pair Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley under Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill.

The two seasoned campaigners will get the chance to add to the combined tally of 187 senior caps across friendly fixtures with Panama and Costa Rica over May and June.

O’Neill is keen to extend the defenders’ Northern Ireland commitments to draw on the benefits both on and off the field.

“You look at Aaron and Gareth and they value every international cap,” said O’Neill. “Both Aaron and Gareth have indicated to me as long as they are playing club football they will play international football.

“Obviously it’s difficult to play international football if not affiliated to a club.

“I know Aaron has an option to stay on at Hearts but his decision is not based on financial or anything else other than what suits his life at this moment in time.

“He has hopped about in recent years but seems settled at Hearts and has been excellent any time I’ve seen him play.

“I don’t see a player, when I look at Aaron at Hearts, that has just one more season in him and, given how he looks after himself, could play on until he is 40 years old.

“He seems to be over the niggly injuries, which played a big decision in his choice to go forward and I would like to see Aaron play on as he has a lot to offer.

“I’m hoping Aaron and Gareth both have another international cycle.

“We can protect them in terms of the games they play and a lot depends around each player’s situation.

“You look at Gareth now in the Championship with West Brom and, suddenly, there are more games and the demands are higher in terms of the frequency.

“But Gareth and Aaron are not players who need to be playing every week to be valuable to a club and, equally, to the international squad.”

The belief that life within the current Northern Ireland camp only improves over time is shared by other experienced defenders like Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart.

“I spoke to all of the players to gauge feelings about the tour and, straight away, Aaron, Gareth, Jonny and Craig were all very keen,” said O’Neill. “That was a big positive, I still think we can put on the pitch an experienced team, although with a little bit of inexperience around it for that freshness.

“Jonny has spoken of how he appreciates it now more than ever and wants to get to 100 caps as soon as possible,

“You look at Craig and we’ve missed him, in fact it was a bit of a risk when we put him on the pitch against South Korea.

“Those were his first meaningful minutes of the season and it was good that, off the back of that appearance, he went back and played for Watford.

“He has time to make up too as Craig has not really played for us on any consistent basis since the Euros and everyone could see in France he was a massive player.”

The Central America tour is one O’Neill is relishing.

“The key for us is we play Panama and Costa Rica as those nations’ final home games before the World Cup,” he said. “My understanding is both games are sold out.

“That’s what we want, games with an edge and atmosphere.

“It’s irrelevant to me how the opposition will play compared to the value of having big games.

“We want to obviously go with that feeling we should be in Russia and get two positive results.”