NI skipper Aaron Hughes retires from international duty

Aaron Hughes scored his only Northern Ireland against the Faroe Islands in August 2011
Aaron Hughes scored his only Northern Ireland goal against the Faroe Islands in August 2011

Northern Ireland have been rocked by the news that captain Aaron Hughes is retiring from internationals at the end of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

The Fulham defender is expected to play his last international in the final qualifier away to Italy on 11 October.

His Windsor Park farewell should come four days before that when Northern Ireland are at home to Estonia.

If he plays in both games, Hughes, who will be 32 in November, will have won 81 caps for Northern Ireland.

His only international goal came in the 4-0 home win over the Faroe Islands in August.

The result revived hopes that Hughes, captain for 46 matches, might lead Northern Ireland into the finals of a major tournament.

However, subsequent defeats by Serbia and Estonia ended any chance Nigel Worthington's men had of qualifying.

Cookstown-born Hughes revealed his decision in an interview on BBC Radio Ulster's Sportsound programme.

"I had thought about doing it at the end of the last campaign," he said.

"It would have been nice to go out on a high by qualifying to a major finals but it was not meant to be.

"But it is good we have had realistic chances of qualifying in the last couple of campaigns.

"I knew halfway through this one that it was my last.

"There are a few reasons why I would want to stay on, but there are more for me to say it is time to call it a day and concentrate on my club football.

"I feel now is a good time while I am fit and playing well."

Hughes made his Northern Ireland debut against Slovakia in March 1998 when Lawrie McMenemy was manager.

At that stage he was an 18-year-old with Newcastle United and he went on to play for Aston Villa before former Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez signed him for Fulham.

Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington explained that he had had many discussions with Hughes over the past couple of months.

"I know this was a difficult decision for Aaron, but it is one we have to respect," said Worthington.

"Obviously from my point of view and also Northern Ireland's, it is a huge loss.

"Aaron is a truly excellent professional and a real gentleman.

"It is always sad to lose a player of Aaron's calibre - but Aaron Hughes is not only a great player, he is a also a great captain and person."

The decision leaves Northern Ireland short of defensive options as George McCartney and Stephen Craigan also recently called time on their international careers.