Hughes hails tour a big success
Published 05/06/2014 | 16:07
Aaron Hughes insists Northern Ireland are leaving South America a better side than they arrived, despite suffering successive defeats.
The veteran defender was by a distance the most experienced head on a trip that saw four players handed international debuts, winning his 90th cap in Wednesday's 2-0 loss to Chile.
Number 89 came five days earlier as Uruguay won 1-0 in Montevideo, with Northern Ireland acquitting themselves well in both fixtures.
Against World Cup-bound opponents on home soil, Michael O'Neill's depleted squad worked tirelessly in pursuit of a result and were 10 minutes from achieving one in Valparaiso until Alexis Sanchez teed up fellow substitutes Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Pinilla for two late goals.
Hughes was frustrated not to have held out but refused to let that dampen his enthusiasm for what has taken place over the last two weeks.
"It's been a really, really good trip and two really good performances," said the 34-year-old.
"When you look at the quality of opposition there's no shame whatsoever in what we have done.
"It is a massive learning experience for us. To come out to South America to play against two teams who are going to the World Cup and to be able to compete with them, show we can play against that standard and not look out of our depth.
"The work we've put in over the past 10 days, the way the squad has gelled and the morale has all been really good.
"That is just as important as saying we played well and didn't deserve to lose.
"Everything is so positive. That was really why we came out here, it wasn't just to be cannon fodder, there was a real purpose.
"To have walked away from the game knowing we had taken something from it would have been great but there were so many things to be happy about in both games even though we are a little disappointed."
Although the performances of Hughes and fellow senior men Steven Davis and Roy Carroll were the standouts, the former captain was keen to sing the praises of the less experienced players.
Doncaster's Luke McCullough, 20, played above himself in both games against the likes of Edinson Cavani and Alexis, 19-year-old Ryan McLaughlin looked a real handful on his first start in Chile and brother Conor McLaughlin made the step up from Fleetwood Town with minimal fuss.
There were also first caps on the tour for Liam Donnelly and Paul Paton.
"The young lads who have come in have looked comfortable on the whole trip, too, not just in the games," said Hughes.
"It's not just that they've come in, played their games and doing well, it's the opposition they are playing against.
"They've shown they weren't fazed by it and they are competing at that level and taking a step up.
"That's what we need. We need these young players coming through and stepping up exactly like this and the composure they've shown has been fantastic
"If they are called upon in the next few months they have already shown they can step up and that is fantastic for Northern Ireland."