Belfast Telegraph

Hungary v Northern Ireland: Midfielder Chris Brunt vows to get off to winning start

By Julian Taylor

He's the potential 'pest' aiming to inject a dose of early misery for the Magyars.

Chris Brunt insists he's ready to improve on a disappointing international scoring record, as Northern Ireland look to scope out three points against Hungary in Budapest's Groupama Arena tomorrow night on Euro 2016 qualifying duty.

The West Bromwich Albion captain thrives on the responsibility in the rarefied heights of the Premier League, but, strangely, when it comes to scoring, remains frustratingly on the margins for his country.

With only a single strike to his name in 46 appearances, against San Marino in 2009 it's a conundrum, particularly when you consider the lethal left-foot in Brunt's possession.

He's here on business, and with the finals in France at stake, things need to change. Manager Michael O'Neill has regularly lamented the difficulty he faces when it comes to making capital in clashes which should have been done and dusted – such as the forlorn 2012 World Cup qualifiers.

If – and it remains a big if – a flurry of goals can somehow emerge from attack-minded figures such as Brunt, it would go a long way to putting Northern Ireland firmly in the mix for a top three spot in Group F.

However, the Belfast native is fully focused on his task on the banks of the Danube, as he spoke from the team hotel nestling on the picturesque and refined Margaret Island between the forested hills of Buda and the boulevards of Pest. The scene is beautifully set.

"Of course you want to score more goals (for your country)," admits Brunt. "But if you take away David Healy then you could probably say it's a problem for most of us in the camp.

"It's a different responsibility at international level, away from home. A lot of times away with Northern Ireland we're under a lot of pressure, but we often defend really well, however that can impact on us in an attacking sense.

"If it means defending and then scoring from a set-piece, or whatever, then we'll take it, as there is no right or wrong way to win football matches. It really doesn't matter who scores though, even if Roy (goalkeeper Carroll) smacks one in.

"Obviously you'd love your strikers to score but we're a team, a group of lads who work hard for each other, but since Dave (David Healy) hasn't been playing it's been difficult for all of us.

"This campaign is going to be big for everyone. I want to contribute and be successful but it's down to improving results on the pitch."

Brunt, like many in the Northern Ireland camp, exudes a quiet confidence, noted with realism, about what this team that O'Neill is blending can do, not just against the Hungarians but other group rivals, Greece, Finland, Romania and the Faroe Islands.

He explained: "Obviously you've got to be confident. It's going to be tough but with extra teams now going through it's got to be the best chance we've had for a long time. It's important we get off to a good start in the group.

"The other teams will be thinking of that as well, especially Greece, given that they were in the World Cup. They aren't, with respect, a Spain or a Germany but they're an effective team, and you don't get to the World Cup knockout stages without being a good side, so everyone expects them to qualify from the group. The play-offs are up for grabs though."

Brunt reels from the reminder that it is almost exactly four years since Northern Ireland's last competitive win away from home, in Slovenia, under Nigel Worthington. He does manage to draw a parallel with tomorrow night's clash against Attila Pinter's men.

"I think the game will be similar to that night in Slovenia, and even though it wasn't a top performance we dug in for the right result.

"There haven't been too many good nights away from home. It's difficult to figure out why that is, but most teams know it's easier to perform at home when you're in familiar surroundings."

Brunt's international experience has been slightly erratic in terms of discipline, with a red card in a Windsor Park World Cup qualifier against Portugal on the charge sheet. He vows to tighten up.

"A couple of suspensions were disappointing, especially when frustration took over in games at home over the last couple of years," he says. "I was disappointed, of course, to pick up cards in games but, fitness permitting, I want to be available for the whole campaign."

The Magyar meeting will ensure a reunion with former Baggies team-mate, Zoltan Gera, now the old hand of Hungary.

Adds Brunt: "I spoke with Zoltan last week and it would be nice to catch up with him. He used to play on the right of midfield at West Brom and I played on the left.

"I was a younger player then and picked up a few things from him. He's a great guy and someone who you'd want to keep in touch with. Hopefully he won't do too much damage on the night, but he's more than capable so that's something we have to look out for."

O'Neill has called for his men to finally display resolve. And if Brunt can provide the missing spark, Northern Ireland really can set sail here on the Danube.

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