Aaron Hughes makes Irish U-turn
Fulham defender Aaron Hughes has made himself available for new Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill's first squad after reversing his decision to retire from international football.
Hughes, 32, announced his decision to end his international career in September and was denied the chance of a swansong when a groin injury ruled him out of his country's final Euro 2012 qualifiers against Estonia and Italy.
But when O'Neill started work as Nigel Worthington's successor at the turn of the year, he made contacting Hughes - the national captain at the time of his retirement - one of his top priorities. Hughes made his debut in 1998 and has 79 caps to his name.
O'Neill's decision to appoint Fulham first-team coach Billy McKinlay as his number two gave him a direct line to Hughes - one the defender admits played a part in his decision to come back.
''I have thought very carefully over recent weeks about returning to play for the national team, since my decision to retire at the end of the last campaign,'' Hughes said.
''After speaking with the new manager, Michael O'Neill, and also Billy McKinlay, who I'm obviously close to at Fulham, I feel I would like to once again return, and try to help us qualify for the next World Cup.
''I am proud to represent my country and it is my aim to contribute as much as I possibly can for the upcoming matches.''
O'Neill is delighted to have his most experienced defender back for the challenges ahead, starting with the friendly against Norway at Windsor Park on February 29. Although Hughes is a certainty for inclusion, it is uncertain whether he will take the armband again, with midfielder Steven Davis the other main contender.
''Aaron and I met during the week and had very positive discussions and I am delighted that he has decided to come out of retirement,'' said O'Neill. ''Aaron is a truly excellent professional and this is a massive boost, not only for me, but also for the squad.''