Aaron Hughes launches anti-online bullying campaign in Greenisland

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Former Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes highlighted how education is key in helping to tackle online hate and discrimination as he backed a new initiative in Greenisland yesterday (Sunday).

BT teamed up with the Irish Football Association and non-profit Cybersmile to launch the new educational platform with a roadshow at Greenisland FC.

Working with Cybersmile, BT has created the Hope United online education platform for young people designed to help tackle online hate, bullying and abuse. The modules are available to anyone, for free, at cybersmileeducation.org/cat/roadshow

They include:

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Aaron Hughes took part in a masterclass with young players at Greenisland FC.Aaron Hughes took part in a masterclass with young players at Greenisland FC.
Aaron Hughes took part in a masterclass with young players at Greenisland FC.

Why hope beats hate - how hope can heal, empower, unite, inspire and save people;

The impact of online abuse - the implications of online abuse and how everyone can be a better digital citizen;

Digital self-care - discover how to look after mental and physical wellbeing by keeping a healthy balance between online and offline lives.

Hughes was in attendance to provide a masterclass at the Gleenkeen Avenue facility. Detailing his own experiences in an interview with this newspaper, the defender, who represented Northern Ireland between 1998 and 2018, said: “You get the odd little comment here and there, but nothing to the extent that I would class it as online bullying. It’s been around for a few years, but the issue itself has maybe raised its head a bit more over the last couple of years and there’s a lot more talk around it. Incidents have happened. When I was playing, it was maybe happening, but maybe wasn’t being talked about as much or people didn’t maybe know where to take that information or where to reach out for help. It’s not something that I’ve had a great deal of experience with, even in terms of some of my close teammates.

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“It’s become a lot easier for people to talk now. People have a safer environment and they feel they can open up. They don’t feel afraid to do so or that they are weak in opening up. These things have been talked about more in a bid to try and help and raise awareness.”

Touching on the racist abuse Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were subjected to on social media following England’s loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, Hughes explained: “I think when it happens to high-profile people, that gets people talking about it. Equally, I think that’s why it’s a great thing to link BT and the IFA and how we can use football to raise awareness and promote the platform which is now available. Certainly, when it happens around high-profile sports people, that’s when you get most noise. That’s when it gets the conversation started. It’s good to be able to flip it and use football in a positive way.

“All it takes is one or two high-profile incidents for it all to blow up and in that regard, not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s a good thing that we start to talk about it and you realise how much of an issue it is, not just in sport, but in general.”

Commenting on how important a resource the new programme is, the former Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Fulham star said: “I think initiatives like this and the online platform, when you look at the challenges young people have today, it gives them somewhere to go to get information and get a little bit of help if they need it, or just to find out a little bit more and understand the issue and learn how to cope with it.

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“It’s also good that it will help educate young kids and teach them not to get caught up in it. Like any big issue like this, I think education is key.

“Schemes like this definitely help. At the end of the day, all you can do is raise awareness and try and educate people. I guess the more we try to talk about it, get it out there and give young people more education about it and better tools to deal with it and give them places where they can go to learn about it, you like to think it will help. In that regard, it’s really important and hopefully we are moving in the right direction.

“Football is a good platform to launch it on. It’s a sport that lots of people play and they can relate to. With that, you can get lots of high-profile people involved. I’m really privileged to have been asked to be part of it. I wouldn’t class myself as high-profile, there are many more players who are more relevant. But from a personal point of view, I’m a dad, I’ve two teenage daughters, so as a parent it’s something I’m wary of.

“This is very much aimed at kids and where they can go. As a parent you sometimes don’t know where to go, so even creating that conversation and having kids talking about it with their parents is a really positive thing. I’m massively honoured to be involved. It’s a really important issue and if my involvement contributes to helping a little bit, I’m very happy to do so.”

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Hughes, who amassed 112 caps for his country, including playing at Euro 2016, was full of praise for the coaches at Greenisland FC.

He said: “For any club, when you can start rhyming off and listing players of the calibre of Jonny and Corry Evans, Craig Cathcart and Michael Smith and the careers they have had, it’s a special and a nice thing to have. It’s not only a great thing to have associated with the club, but it’s a great thing that your young players coming through, they know they are coming to a club where they can look at role models and they can almost relate to them. It’s obviously a great setup. You don’t produce players like that if it’s not. I know all of the things I’ve heard about the club, even outside of this, it’s a club that is spoken very highly of. I guess it is no surprise that they are able to produce players like that and I’m sure they will continue to in the future.”

The Cookstown native, who began his youth career at St James’ Park in 1996, believes there are many challenges facing young players from Northern Ireland who are wanting to forge a career in the game today.

Aaron said: “Some of the stuff I’m involved in, I speak to Andy Waterworth a lot in my role at the IFA just around the development and the challenges ahead. We’ve got our academy and that’s what it’s set up for, to try and bridge that gap for our boys when they go across the water. And looking to the future, we’re not sure how it’s going to go, but with the boom in women’s football, potentially we’d have to look at it for the girls as well and how best to facilitate them.

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“Football is global and are boys are going across the water. They’re not just having to compete against the best in the UK. Teams can bring players in from all over the world. I had a chat with the some of the academy players recently with Andy and we were saying it’s not just about ability. It’s things like mental attitude, it’s the right attitude and they need to make sure they have it for going across. We’ve always had a really good record of producing players and sending boys across the water and the biggest issue is that they have been coming back, either because of being homesick or the mental side of the game has been tough for them, plus they now have to deal with the social media stuff as well.

“To make it now as a young player is very hard. That being said, there are probably lots of different ways now to make it. It isn’t the case that if you haven’t been in a first team by the time you’re 21, you’re not going to be a player. Lots of players have different routes. Some go straight to the top and some make their way up through the different leagues. I think there is more opportunity that way, but certainly the path is a lot more competitive these days.”

Commenting on the progress the Irish League has made over recent years, Hughes, who now lives in Edinburgh, added: “I think it’s getting better. I think it’s a much better product than a few years ago. You look at the level, the ability, the players who are in there now - it’s definitely on the up. That can only be good for our players and equally with my IFA development hat on, good for our young players too because the more our clubs get better, the more they develop.”

Hughes, who hung up his boots in June 2019, has recently been on a course with UEFA, the MIP, a Masters for International Players.

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He explained: “It’s like a diploma in sports management. It looks at the admin side of football. I’m quite interested in a technical director role. It’s been a little bit delayed with Covid. I was supposed to be finished last summer, but it probably won’t be finished now until September. It’s been really interesting seeing that side of the game. Also, my role with the IFA, sort of like a consultant type role, it matches up nicely and I’m seeing things I wouldn’t have seen before and I even joke that there are parts of the stadium I hadn’t seen before, because I was turning up to the changing room and going on the pitch.

“I also try to keep my hand in with a wee bit of coaching. I’ve been in with the Under 21s a couple of times, more so to just be in and around it and I coach with the Under 19 women as well. I’m looking forward to my next camp with them.

“I haven’t really made any firm decisions, but hopefully things will become clearer in the next few months.”

Hughes’ former Northern Ireland teammate Keith Gillespie is also involved with the anti-discrimination effort and took part at a launch event on Sunday at Holm Park, home of Armagh City FC.

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Hughes concluded: “It’s really great to see Keith. It’s been a long time since we’ve been involved in anything together. Probably my best memory of Keith at Newcastle was the night we beat Barcelona 3-2 in the Champions League. I was on the bench that night, I was just breaking into the squad, but Keith was incredible. He pretty much set up all three goals. When Keith was in that form, when he was at that level, he was one of the best, he was virtually unplayable.

“I was around 13/14 when he made his breakthrough at Manchester United, so he was kind of one of those players you look up to. Then he moved to Newcastle just before I moved across the water, so then there was already a connection, even though I didn’t know him. Then to get playing with someone I’d looked up to for a couple of years, I still thing it’s quite a cool thing. Who would have thought 25 years ago that I’d be doing something like this now with Keith, because he was one of the players I looked up to?”