Aaron Hughes’ 100th cap came with no pomp and ceremony in Slovakia, though the modest defender revealed there was a tinge of emotion when he addressed his Northern Ireland team-mates post-match.
The 36-year-old joined Pat Jennings in their country’s club of centurions by arriving on to the pitch in Trnava as a 30th-minute substitute for the injured Craig Cathcart.
Such was Hughes’ keenness to enter the fray to immediately defend a corner in the 0-0 draw, he had already reached his own penalty area by the time the PA announcer at The City Arena informed the crowd of his historic appearance.
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Only after the game, when Hughes spoke in front of the colleagues now bound for Euro 2016, did the magnitude of his achievement begin to hit him.
“Once I got the nod to come on when Craig came off, I was just concentrating on the game so I didn’t really have time to think about it,” he said.
“Since coming off the pitch I’ve been reflecting on little bits and pieces from the game but I’m sure it will sink in at some point and maybe I’ll take a big sigh of relief and catch my breath a little bit.
“It still feels pretty normal but I didn’t really know how it was going to feel. For now, I’m quite calm about it all.
“It was a little bit emotional making a speech in the dressing room after the game.
“I’ve received a lot of well-wishes this week and I was trying to play it down a bit because I just wanted to get onto the pitch.
“I’m going to the Euros because of these lads, though. I can look back on the 100 caps as a personal thing and it was always going to be a big thing but the Euros is bigger.”
Hughes’ century was brought up against the same opponent he made his debut against in 1998 and five years after he originally called time on his international career.
That retirement proved short-lived, though, as the appointment of Michael O’Neill persuaded him he would return to a team that could reach a first finals since the 1986 World Cup.
“I think that’s why I retired when I did, I was disillusioned thinking it was never going to be possible,” Hughes added.
“To still be part of that group has made it special for me. We are a close-knit group on and off the pitch and that makes it special for every one of us.”
The tributes had already poured in for Hughes ahead of Saturday’s outing, with Jennings, Northern Ireland’s record scorer David Healy and current colleagues like Chris Baird and Paddy McNair all waxing lyrical.
“The compliments from the manager and team-mates are the ones that mean the world to me,” Hughes stated.
“Of course it is nice to hear people say nice things about you but when it comes from the people who work with you day-in, day-out, then it means a lot.”
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