Hughes set for club hunting following Northern exposure
AARON HUGHES became Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player against Qatar, but needs regular football next season to keep his European Championship dream alive.
The 35-year-old captained the side in a 1-1 draw in Crewe, his 96th international appearance, taking him past David Healy and leaving him behind only goalkeeper Pat Jennings in the North's history books. But the centre-half managed just 13 games for Brighton last season, the last of which came in January, and has now been released.
With Michael O'Neill's side currently second in their Euro 2016 qualifying group and on course for their first major tournament in 30 years, Hughes knows he cannot afford another bit-part role next term.
He will hope to feature again in a non-cap international against the Republic of Ireland next week, before the crucial Group F clash against Romania on June 13. But after that, Hughes will begin searching for the right deal.
"Right now, I'm just focused on the upcoming games and, then in the summer, it's about finding a club which will enable me to come back for the internationals," he said.
"The focus leading into this week was just to come back fit and get through this game, and the one behind closed doors before the big one against Romania. Once that is out the way, I'll really be concentrating on it but I don't want to let it concern me or distract me now.
"The move has to be right for me. I'm getting to the back-end of my career now, so I'd like to go somewhere I will probably play a few more games than I have this year. At this stage of my career, I don't want to be sitting watching games tick past. I want to play football, it's what I train every day to do.
"It has to be somewhere I've got a chance of playing. You can never walk in somewhere and expect to play every game, your performances and fitness have to be good, but I'm looking for somewhere with a realistic chance. It's about staying in contention for Northern Ireland, but also for my own enjoyment too."
With competition stiff at the heart of defence - Hughes was left out against Finland as O'Neill preferred Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans - Hughes might also need the Euros to achieve his long-awaited century of caps.
"The record hasn't really sunk in yet, but I've been lucky enough to hang around this long and get there," he added.
"It's something I'm proud of and, when it starts to sink in, I'll realise what an achievement it is. It's the same with the 100th, it hasn't happened and there's a lot of other things I need to focus on first.
"But if we got to the Euros that would take care of the 100, it would come at some point during that, so the Euros is the big thing at the moment, and if I got there then fantastic."