Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Another big match for Brunt

Chris Brunt is looking upon tonight's meeting with Israel at Windsor Park as a friendly with a difference for Northern Ireland, with key World Cup qualifiers against Poland and Slovakia looming next month

He wasn’t the only absentee, but Chris Brunt had a very good excuse for not making it to Italy in June with the Northern Ireland squad.

The winger had a bigger match on his mind, with his wedding to wife Cathy taking place in Belfast on the same day.

Friendly matches rarely get the juices flowing and even when it’s the world champions in opposition the interest factor just wasn’t the same.

Effectively it became a glorified B international, with the Italians entering into the spirit of things by fielding a team of fringe players and youngsters keen to impress as well.

Tonight is different. When Northern Ireland run out to take on Israel at Windsor Park it will be the strongest squad that Nigel Worthington has available to him — although the starting line-up could be experimental.

It’s a friendly with feeling, with a purpose because of what is to come in the next couple of months.

World Cup qualification is on the horizon for the first time in 24 years and that’s why this is possibly the most important friendly that Northern Ireland have ever undertaken.

“It’s never nice missing games. I didn’t play in the last qualifier against Slovenia because of suspension and it was a killer for me,” said Brunt.

“At least the lads went on and got a great result.

“The Italy game was completely different. We’d the wedding planned for a while and it was a late decision for us to play the match against Italy. If it had been a qualifier it would have been different.

“We would have known well in advance and everyone would have made themselves available I’m sure.

“I don’t think we’ve got a good record in friendlies and while this may be only a friendly there is a lot of importance attached to this game.

“We have to look at this one like the game in Poland and it’s a warm-up for that.

“We know it’s going to be tough in Poland and although results in friendlies don’t really count for anything, if everyone puts in a good performance it’ll give us a bit more confidence going into the Poland game, especially after the last two qualifiers, beating Poland and Slovenia we’re on a good run and long may it continue.

“It’s just important that we try to implement everything from training into the game because we’ll be trying to do the same thing in Poland.

“We have to treat them as if they are Poland and play the way we want to play over there.”

Brunt has a lot on his plate at the minute.

Fifteen-month-old son Charlie is keeping him on his toes at home, while football wise the task of trying to get promotion back into the Premier League with West Brom started on Saturday and will occupy him almost every weekend from now until May next year.

Others in the squad have their eyes on the same thing, survival in the English top flight is on the minds of others, while for Manchester United’s Jonny Evans and Rangers pair Steve Davis and Kyle Lafferty it’s trying to win the league in England and Scotland they are thinking about.

And there are even some who are fighting to get into their club’s first-teams.

International football isn’t far from everyone’s thoughts though and over the next month — tonight and then the September double header away to Poland and at home to Slovakia — it will be closer to the front than the back of the minds.

“We can’t just think about our clubs at the minute because we’ve three qualifiers coming up which are important,” admitted Brunt.

“This is probably the best chance that we’ve had in a long time of getting something.

“After a couple of disappointing results in the last campaign which cost us in the long run this is our next chance and it’s important we all get our heads down and focus on this as well.”

That ban from the game against Slovenia allowed Brunt to have an armchair view of the game — even if it’s not the one he would have chosen.

It was hardly edge of the seat stuff as Warren Feeney’s late goal claimed the points.

At West Brom last season departed manager Tony Mowbray — who left for Celtic in the summer — won plaudits for the way his team played the game and entertained the fans.

Ultimately those supporters would have been happier had the team remained in the Premier League rather than once again spending only a single season in the top flight before being relegated.

And Brunt would happily sacrifice flourishing football for winning in the three remaining World Cup qualifying games that will decide Northern Ireland’s fate.

“If you are performing well it’s going to help you get results, but a lot of the time it’s about being solid as a unit and working hard for each other,” he said.

“That probably epitomises Northern Ireland football at the moment and that’s how we’ve got a lot of our results over the last few years.

“Everyone would settle for not being particularly entertaining and getting the same result as we did against Slovenia.

“I watched the game on television and it wasn’t exactly a thriller, but when Warren Feeney headed the ball into the net with about 15 minutes to go I was as excited as anyone in the stadium and three more games like that would do for me.”

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