Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Brunt ready to shine for Northern Ireland

Chris Brunt is back from injury

When Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland team were producing a stunning performance in Portugal last month, Chris Brunt was sitting at home roaring them on in front of his television screen.

“Gutted” not to be playing due to injury, the West Brom midfielder kicked every ball in his living room as he watched the compelling World Cup qualifier.

When the final whistle blew Brunt felt as shattered as the players in Porto that they had not earned an unlikely win, yet the 27-year-old was filled with pride at the performance put in by the visitors in the 1-1 draw.

“I thought the way the boys defended they deserved a clean sheet and all three points.

“I was sitting on the edge of my seat at home watching the game. It was brilliant,” he said at yesterday's press conference painting an image of life that night in the Brunt household.

It illustrated his passion for Northern Ireland which on occasion has been questioned by some fans suggesting his demeanour on the pitch isn't what it should be and that he performs better for his club than his country.

He's not alone on the latter and as for the former just because he doesn't show it in the way other players might, it doesn't mean he isn't desperate to shine for Northern Ireland.

I believe Chris is hungry to be a huge hit at international level and still has time to do so.

Pardon the pun, but he has taken the brunt of supporter fury off the pitch after certain games. He's answered back making him a marked man among some at Windsor Park.

Perhaps that's why in a press conference yesterday he gave an extremely honest assessment of the atmosphere at Windsor games these days which have tended to be different to those in his early years as an international.

First capped in 2004 and now with 39 international appearances to his name, Brunt came on the scene at a time when Northern Ireland were beating England and Spain thanks to brilliant David Healy goals.

Other nations came and went home wondering what had hit them.

Things have changed since then with Northern Ireland having a wretched time in Belfast. The last home match in September, a 1-1 draw with Luxembourg, summed that up with jeers echoing around Windsor at the final whistle.

“The Luxembourg game started well... then everything died. We should have beaten them but we missed our chances and got unlucky with a big deflection leading to their late equaliser. Before the end of the game you could hear frustration coming from the stands,” said Brunt, who then asked the Green and White Army to get behind the team tomorrow and be patient against Azerbaijan, adding that in turn the players would do all they could to deliver a dynamic display.

Whether Brunt plays in tomorrow's games is open to debate. He may be a Premier League star and back fit after a “rubbish” time with injuries, but he admits himself that manager O'Neill (pictured with Corry Evans) will find it hard to drop the heroes of Porto.

Anywhere near the top of his game, Brunt should be an automatic selection. He has a left foot most top players would give one of their Ferrari's for, though it is fair to say given his talent he has rarely influenced an international the way he should.

Maybe it's his position. With WBA he plays more centrally in midfield. With Northern Ireland most of his games have been out wide.

He says: “In the last few seasons at my club I have been used more centrally, but if Michael picks me to play wide I'll do my best. When you are playing wide in international football it is a difficult position because it is a lot of hard work without getting a lot of the ball. You would expect that with us being a smaller country.

“It's not for me to say where I play. At my club this season I've played three or four positions and I've only started a few games but I like to think I can do a good job wherever I play.”

It could be a tight game and Brunt's ability, either from the start or the bench, could be key for O'Neill's side, who will go two points behind second spot in Group F with a win.

I asked Brunt if he thought Northern Ireland could still qualify for the finals in Brazil. You could not fault his optimism.

“Why not?” he replied. “Especially after a result like that in Portugal. We have four home games on the bounce now and it is important we start that run with a win against Azerbaijan.”

To help them achieve that goal Brunt and his buddies would welcome your total support tomorrow night.

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