Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill: My heart goes out to injured Chris Brunt

By Laure James

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has described Chris Brunt's absence from the Euro 2016 finals as 'heartbreaking'.

The West Bromwich Albion star was officially ruled out of Northern Ireland's trip to France yesterday, with O'Neill receiving the call he was dreading while in Paris for a get together of all the managers involved in this year's tournament.

Brunt, who won the first of his 54 caps in 2004, will be out of action for six months after scans showed he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Saturday against Crystal Palace in a Premier League fixture. The 31-year-old played in eight of Northern Ireland's 10 unforgettable qualifiers en route to France, but instead of preparing to fly to Lyon with the team to their base-camp this summer, in a sickening twist of fate he was forced to head there prematurely - for re-constructive surgery yesterday.

The crushing news comes not even a fortnight after a so-called Baggies 'fan' threw a coin at Brunt, after an FA Cup defeat at Reading, causing injury dangerously close to his eye.

O'Neill said: "To play as long as Chris has at international level and now to miss out on the finals is heart-breaking.

"I'm devastated for him and I'm devastated for the team as well.

"That's the unfortunate nature of football. All we can do is sympathise with Chris and support him at this time."

O'Neill added: "I've played him at left-back over the past campaign in particular, which isn't his most natural position at this moment in time, but he has taken on that challenge and been fantastic for us."

The Northern Ireland boss revealed that he has already invited Brunt to join the squad in France, even though he won't be able to play.

"I spoke to him earlier in the week and I have assured him whatever part he wants to play in the tournament, he can," said O'Neill.

"That will be important for him but equally, I know it's a difficult scenario for a player to be on the outside if they can't take part."

Meanwhile, O'Neill will put pen to paper on a new contract within days. As revealed in the Belfast Telegraph, O'Neill has agreed terms for a £2milllion, four-year deal, and is now waiting for lawyers to finalise the paperwork.

His stock has risen, and after this newsppaer disclosed that O'Neill was in the frame to succeed under-fire Ronny Delia at Celtic, Irish FA bosses have also negotiated a compensation clause of £750,000, in the event he lands a top job.

O'Neill says while the paperwork can be a headache, he doesn't expect talks with IFA chief executive, Patrick Nelson, to suffer any snags.

"We hope to have everything finalised within the next week. It's been held up, not because of any specific reason, but drawing up the legalities of a contract takes a bit of time. Patrick and I have been away, and it just takes time," he said.

"There's no discussions over the terms of the contract which need to be outlined, it's just a case of getting the paperwork in order."

He conceded the European finals are seen as a shop window for coaches hopeful of landing a big role elsewhere, yet added it's the same for all.

"Of course, the Euros will a shop window for coaches, as with the players. And by that point, contracts will be less significant. Should I leave the job I'm in, the Association will be compensated and I think the way the contract has been drawn up is fair in that respect to both parties.

"The main focus is on the summer, though I think obviously signing a new contract helps deliver that."

O'Neill is expected to announce his squad on March 16, for friendlies against Wales and Slovenia later this month, and will give QPR striker Conor Washington the nod. The 23-year-old moved to Loftus Road in January from Peterborough, and stole O'Neill's attention by scoring in Posh's 2-0 win over Luton Town.

O'Neill, who was there to watch Pat McCourt and Michael Smith, said: "I intend to include him in March. He's very, very keen to be involved and it's refreshing to see his excitement at the prospect of playing international football.

"We had known about Conor for a while. He's not just one who popped up when we qualified, we knew about him when he transferred from Peterborough from Newport, because his agent is a lad who played with me at Wigan, Kevin Nicholls, so I knew because Kevin had alerted me.

"I think he's still finding his feet at QPR. The games he has started in he's played well, and I think he needs to get a goal to get him going a bit, but his performances have been good."

Meanwhile, the IFA believe they can secure another 2,000 tickets for Northern Ireland fans for the Euro 2016 game with Ukraine and around 100 more for the Germany match.

Northern Ireland are now 28th in the latest Fifa world rankings.

Belfast Telegraph