Irish FA technical director Aaron Hughes said the widely hailed return of Michael O’Neill as Northern Ireland manager was “exciting for everyone”.
The appointment of O’Neill, who guided NI to the Euro 2016 final in France, was confirmed last weekjust a month after Hughes was announced in his role.
“Michael’s nomination is huge. It’s given everyone a real boost, given the reaction he’s already had,” he said.
“When I was consulted, I was very positive about it all.”
O’Neill will lead Northern Ireland to the upcoming Euro 2024 qualifying campaign under a five-and-a-half-year deal with the Irish FA.
He previously managed the side from late 2011 to 2020, before leaving to focus fully on managing Championship side Stoke City with Ian Baraclough appointed as his replacement.
Baraclough was sacked in October, two months after O’Neill suffered a similar fate at Stoke, paving the way for the latter’s return to the job he held for more than eight years.
Former NI captain Hughes played under O’Neill in a senior international career that saw him rack up 112 caps, before retiring in 2019.
He joined the IFA last year as an elite football development consultant, before taking on the role of technical director within the IFA management team.
“I’m delighted we were able to bring Michael back. It shows there is an ambition to improve and get the best out of ourselves,” Hughes told BBC Sport NI.
“Michael’s appointment gives us that immediate impact. If you’re looking at qualifying in the next two years, we’re hiring someone who has experience, who knows the environment, the players and what it takes to go to a major tournament.
“Also this strategic mind that I look forward to working with and exploiting.
“We’re not just looking for that instant success, but how we build it, not just in the men’s team, but also on the women’s success.”
“Giving players the best possible experience”
With players born in Northern Ireland eligible to play for Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, player eligibility is an area Hughes will help address in his new role.
“We have a lot to sell so we need to show that and explore where we could do better,” said the former Newcastle United, Fulham and Aston Villa defender.
“Eligibility is crucial because we are not a nation of 40 million where we can afford to miss players.
“We need to make sure our own product is as good as it can be and give players the best possible experience.
“You can’t control some things, so we’ll be focusing a lot on ourselves, making our scouting system as robust as possible and making sure the players we have don’t want to leave.”
“Passionate and excited about a new role”
Hughes relishes the challenge of having the responsibility to help develop the game in his homeland “from the senior team to grassroots football and everything in between”.
“Football has been my life and Northern Ireland has been a big part of it. It keeps me involved in a different role,” said the 43-year-old.
“When you’re a player it’s all about the here and now, but it’s different, broader and the opportunity to have short and long term influence, a chance to contribute to something much bigger. .
“It’s something I’m passionate about and passionate about, improving football across the country so it’s in the best possible place, including on the underage and development side of the game.”
“The National Training Center a priority”
“The National Training Center is a priority for us,” he added. “We claim that our own facility creates a culture and builds a level of excellence, not just the facility and the locations, but the feeling it creates, bringing everyone together.
“It will definitely happen because we need it, but timing is a more difficult issue because it’s something we’re working on.
“I think it’s important that we do things right and not rush because we need to. Although it takes a little longer to ask the right questions and consider what we need to do , engage with the right people and look at some good examples from elsewhere.”
O’Neill has previously indicated that Jimmy Nicholl will still be part of his backstage team, but a possible role for Hughes among the coaching setup has also been mooted as a possibility.
“I’m not sure. Time is running out, but these are conversations to be had,” Hughes said.
“My priority is to be technical director and all that entails. If that allows me to get involved here and there in coaching elements, that would be great.”