O'Neill buoyed by Hughes' U-turn
Hughes captained the side for eight years until he opted to focus on his club career with Fulham at the end of the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign. Injury denied him a farewell appearance against Estonia or Italy and when O'Neill started work as Nigel Worthington's replacement at the start of the month he made testing the 32-year-old's resolve one of his first targets.
O'Neill was happy for Hughes to delay any comeback until the first FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Russia in September but was left impressed by the defender's desire to return to the fray immediately and today named him in his first squad - a 24-man party for the friendly against Norway on 29 February.
"Getting Aaron in for this game wasn't a top priority, the top priority was having Aaron available in September for the start of the qualification games," O'Neill told Press Association Sport. "But he made it clear that he wanted to be back in from the start. That is a testament to what Aaron is like as a character.
"Once we sat down and chatted about things he came back to me very quickly and said he wanted to be back and to be involved from the off. I gave him the option of some more time but he was committed and focused to be in as soon as possible.
"We have core of players with Northern Ireland who have performed admirably in recent years, they're a tight group and the loss of a player from that can cause damage - especially one as influential as Aaron. For him to reverse his decision and be available again is a big positive."
Whether Hughes will return to the captaincy is unclear, with Rangers skipper Steven Davis previously expected to inherit the armband in his absence. "The captaincy is not something I've given that much consideration to at the moment," admitted O'Neill. "There are options, but we have three friendlies coming up so I'll look at the situation and have the right person in place for the Russia match."
O'Neill sprung no major surprises in his first squad, which was missing injured duo Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty as well as Chris Baird for personal reasons. No uncapped players were present but there were recalls for Burnley's Michael Duff, Kilmarnock midfielder Dean Shiels and Newcastle defender Shane Ferguson.
Duff and Shiels were out of favour under Worthington, while there were concerns last year that Ferguson was ready to switch his allegiance to the Republic of Ireland having earned just one senior cap in a friendly. O'Neill has been happy to draw a line under any old issues and is particularly keen to see Shiels and Ferguson back in the fold.
"All the players have been picked on merit and current form. What happened in the past is irrelevant, it's not a factor for me," he said. "I'm building relationships with these players and someone like Dean is having a fantastic season with Kilmarnock and scoring goals from an advanced midfield position. He's a player who is on top of his game at the moment, but his international opportunities have been limited.
"Shane is a player who can play in both positions on the left and is consistently knocking on the door at Newcastle. He's a young player we want to make the next step. He has the ability to have a good Premier League career and also a long and successful international one as well. I didn't have to think long and hard about including either of those players."
There was no place for highly-rated striker Rory Donnelly, who made the move from Cliftonville to Swansea in January, though O'Neill confirmed he was monitoring the player, while Daniel Lafferty, who swapped Derry City for Burnley last month, is on stand-by for the squad.