Aaron Hughes' retirement: Defender pays special tribute to NI manager O'Neill

Aaron Hughes and Michael O'Neill celebrate after Niall McGinn's goal in Northern Ireland's 2-0 win over Ukraine at Euro 2016
Michael O'Neill convinced Hughes in 2012 to reverse his decision to quit Northern Ireland duty

Aaron Hughes has paid a special tribute to Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill after announcing his retirement following Tuesday's win over Belarus.

Hughes, 39, won 112 caps after making his international debut in 1998.

The defender announced his international retirement in November 2011 but was coaxed back by then new Northern Ireland boss O'Neill.

"It would be remiss of me not to mention him [O'Neill] in a different sort of way," said the Tyrone man.

"At the stage of my career when I wasn't playing as much football he still saw a value in me.

"He still saw that I could be a good influence with younger players and he kept me around and gave me a purpose.

"He gave me the opportunity to come back, to be in the squad and ultimately to go to a Euros. For that I will be forever grateful."

Lawrie McMenemy managed Northern Ireland in a two-year stint from 1998
Lawrie McMenemy gave Hughes his first cap against Slovakia in March 1998

McMenemy handed Hughes his NI debut

Speaking in a statement, Hughes emphasised his gratitude to all his international managers during a Northern Ireland career which started when he was called up by Lawrie McMenemy 21 years ago.

"Each and every one of them played a role and had a big influence," added the defender, who captained his country on 48 occasions.

"From Lawrie McMenemy, who gave me my debut, to Sammy [McIlroy] who gave me the armband, right through Lawrie [Sanchez], Nigel [Worthington] and obviously Michael [O'Neill], who has been more than fantastic with me."

Hughes also thanked his family, support staff and fans before paying tribute to his team-mates.

"The memories that we have had, the highs that we have had, going to a Euros, those are experiences that you can't have on your own.

"You can only reach those heights if you have great team-mates around you and I have been very lucky to be involved in a group over the past seven or eight years that have worked really hard to be successful.

"They took me to a Euros, they took me to 100 caps and I am very proud to retire having been part of a very special group of Northern Ireland players."

Hughes first outfield player to earn 100 NI caps

The Cookstown-born defender holds the appearance record for a Northern Ireland outfield player and became the first outfield player to win 100 NI caps during Euro 2016.

Hughes' haul of 112 caps leaves him seven behind Northern Ireland's record holder Pat Jennings although skipper Steven Davis, who earned his 111th against Belarus, is in line to overtake the goalkeeping legend.

His last Northern Ireland appearances came in last summer's trip to Central America, where he played in friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.

Hughes played only seven games for Hearts last season before being released by the Scottish club and was not in the matchday squad against Belarus.

The defender came through the ranks at Newcastle United and played more than 200 games for the club before spells with Aston Villa and Fulham.

Later in his career, he spent time with QPR, Brighton, Melbourne City and the Kerala Blasters in India before joining Hearts.