Belfast Telegraph

New lease of life for Northern Ireland trio at West Bromich Albion

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's trio at West Bromwich Albion are loving life under new manager Tony Pulis.

Chris Brunt, Chris Baird and Gareth McAuley have endured frustrating seasons at the Hawthorns for one reason or another but the arrival of Pulis earlier this month has given all three a new belief that things are going to turn for the better.

The Baggies are unbeaten in three games since Pulis was appointed with Baird, McAuley and Brunt starting in every one of them.

That's not just good news for the players, but also Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.

With a defining year ahead in terms of Euro 2016 qualification hopes, O'Neill wants as many of his squad performing week in week out at the highest level and with McAuley, Baird and Brunt all likely to feature in his strongest XI, he'll be greatly encouraged by the selections at WBA following the arrival of Pulis.

It's a far cry for the Northern Ireland boys from earlier in the campaign when their futures at the Midlands club were under discussion.

Club captain Brunt became a victim of the West Brom boo-boys, while centre back McAuley, despite being Albion's most consistent player for two years, was in and out of the side when Alan Irvine was in charge, and Baird was hardly getting a look in.

Now all of them could play crucial roles for Pulis as he continues his bid to steer the team away from relegation trouble.

The former Stoke and Crystal Palace boss demands organisation, discipline, shape and solidity and his history suggests that if players are doing the business for him, he'll stick by them so the Northern Ireland boys will have another chance to impress on Monday night when Albion travel to Everton.

Speaking about Pulis yesterday, midfielder Brunt likened him to one of the previous bosses at the club. There will be some who won't think comparing the new man to Roy Hodgson is a compliment, but West Brom fans will know it is.

Hodgson may not be flavour of the month as England coach. At the Hawthorns, though, he was highly rated for what he achieved.

"It is a similar set up to Roy Hodgson. He was very hands on with the tactical stuff," said the 30-year-old.

"Tony will talk and walk people around the positions he is after. He is in total control when it comes to training. There will be no grey areas. That can only be a good thing going in to the rest of the season."

It is working so far with WBA up to 14th in the Premier League, having conceded just once in their three games with Pulis at the helm.

McAuley and Baird have played important roles in ensuring that the Baggies are much tighter at the back.

Baird says: "It's been terrific so far. Since Tony has come in everyone has been given a fresh start and we have been working on how to be harder to play against and we are more solid."

Echoing those thoughts McAuley added his respect for Pulis' approach.

"He is his own man and is very decisive in the way he wants us to play as a team and as a unit," said McAuley.

"Everyone knows the kind of character that the gaffer is so no one is going to step out of line."

The 35-year-old also stated that he would welcome new signings in the January transfer window, with Pulis keen to recruit, especially a striker.

On his way out after just one week at the Hawthorns, however, is assistant head coach Paul Jewell. He is taking legal advice, understood to be unhappy at the suggestion of taking a pay cut and the nature of his role with the potential arrival of Gerry Francis to the coaching set up.

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