A goal, an assist and a 4-0 victory in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier; Northern Ireland’s Chris Brunt marked his international return from injury in November’s preliminaries in style. The West Bromwich Albion vice-captain made his first appearance in a green jersey in over a year after recovering from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament picked up in February 2016, which saw the No11 suffer the agony of missing UEFA EURO 2016 – his country’s first major tournament in 30 years.
Brunt, who played an integral part in Michael O’Neill’s side reaching France 2016, made an instant impact on his return. After providing an assist for Gareth McAuley’s header with a superbly-taken free-kick, the left-footed maestro sealed the deal with the fourth and final goal as Northern Ireland brushed aside in-form Azerbaijan to move second in Group C of UEFA qualifying. And while it looked like team-mate and captain Steve Davis had got a final touch on the low drive, Brunt was quick to set the record straight.
“He said to me that it was my goal,” smiled Brunt, in conversation with FIFA.com. But above all, Brunt was simply delighted to be back playing for the national team after his lengthy lay-off.
“When the injury happened, I knew it was bad and it was one of the first things that went through my head: I’m not going to be playing at EURO 2016. Within 24 hours I knew it was out of the question,” said Brunt. “It was very disappointing at the time, I was sitting at home thinking about it and, of course, you get upset and frustrated but that’s football. I’ve always been lucky in my career in terms of not picking up too many injuries but that one just came at a bad time.”
A versatile player who can feature at left-back and on the left side of midfield, Brunt suffered the cruel irony of having to undergo surgery before the tournament in Lyon, one of Northern Ireland’s EURO 2016 venues. But his time in the French city, three months before Northern Ireland defeated Ukraine at Parc Olympique Lyonnais, was made brighter with the arrival of some unexpected visitors.
“There was a party of five from the Irish FA – including Michael O’Neill – who were near Lyon checking facilities before EURO 2016 and they came to see me the evening after my operation,” said Brunt. “I really appreciated it, it was something they didn’t have to do but that’s the kind of group we have. The players and staff are all very much in it together and that proved it for me.”
Gunning for the play-offs
That team spirit is no doubt a key factor in Northern Ireland’s Russia 2018 prospects. The country, who last featured at the world finals in Mexico 1986, find themselves second in Group C behind leaders Germany after seven points from four games. While the reigning world champions seem near impossible to displace, a play-off finish in second is well within Northern Ireland’s grasp.
The next two games will probably define the rest of our qualifying campaign, especially the Norway game in March.
“No disrespect to the other teams in the group but Germany are probably going to run away with it and it would be very surprising if they didn’t finish top,” said Brunt. “Second is a realistic target for us and we’re in a good position at the minute. The next two games will probably define the rest of our qualifying campaign, especially the Norway game in March. We’re pretty strong at Windsor Park at the minute and if we keep winning our home games, we’ll have a good chance.”
With the help of the vocal Green and White Army lending unwavering support and creating a lively atmosphere, Windsor Park has become something of a fortress for Northern Ireland in recent years. Until November’s friendly defeat against Croatia, Northern Ireland’s unbeaten record in Belfast stretched back to September 2013 and O’Neill’s men will certainly take strength from their valiant home form as they host Norway, under the new leadership of Lars Lagerback, in March’s qualifiers.
“They’ll be very wary about coming to Belfast,” asserted Brunt. “They’ll know a lot about us with the coverage we’ve had over the last 18 months, so it’s going to be tough for them, but it’ll be a tough game for us as well. The new manager (Lars Lagerback) has got a great track-record at international level. He’ll have Norway well-drilled and they’ll be trying to break us down and get a result. It’s up to us to try and get three points and, hopefully, if we can, it will leave us in a good position in the group.”
As the weeks progress leading up to the qualifier on 26 March, talk of the Northern Ireland national team will become more frequent in a corner of the West Bromwich Albion changing room. Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans are team-mates of Brunt’s at The Hawthorns as well as the national team, and Norway will very likely be a subject of discussion among the trio leading up to the game.
“Because the last qualifier was in November and you don’t have another until March, it goes on the back-burner, but I’d say over the next couple of weeks we’ll be discussing it a lot more, and amongst the [Northern Ireland] lads at other clubs. You always keep an eye out for the other lads in the squad and look out for their results on a Saturday evening, see if people have played and if they’ve scored.
“The next few weeks will fly in and the focus will be on that Norway game.”