I just could not end my Northern Ireland career on a low: Chrs Brunt
World Cup Group C: N Ireland v Azerbaijan, Windsor Park, Friday, 7.45pm
Northern Ireland players are always guaranteed a warm welcome at Windsor Park, but Chris Brunt is really going to feel the love of the Green and White Army tomorrow night.
When Brunt's dream of playing in the Euro 2016 finals was shattered by a serious knee injury, the fans would have reached out and thrown their arms around the West Brom ace if they could.
Football can be a very cruel game and it will always be a crying shame that Brunt's memories of the finals in France will always contrast with those who pulled on the jersey and faced Poland, Ukraine, Germany and Wales.
The 31-year-old could have been forgiven for walking away from the international stage - it would have been the easy thing to do - but the fire still burns within.
The man whose last appearance for his country was against Finland in a 1-1 draw in Helsinki last October has got unfinished business with Northern Ireland and there's a real spring in his step as he returns to the fold desperate to exorcise the ghosts of this summer.
"It's been a long few months," he admitted with typical understatement.
The Belfast man is relieved to be back where he belongs and he's on a mission to make the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
"It's nice to be back playing generally," he said ahead of the Group C date at home to Azerbaijan tomorrow.
"I haven't missed a great deal of football because it has been over the summer, I think I only missed about 15 games so it's probably not as bad as it seemed but it is still a long time to be out.
"It's the longest time I've ever been out certainly, but it gave me time to work on other things I'd maybe neglected before but it's nice to be back playing.
"I suppose I did have some sort of decision to make regarding my future. When you see what Bairdy (Chris Baird) did after the Euros, had I played at the tournament then maybe it would have been easier.
"At this moment in time it definitely suits me to be playing more games with Northern Ireland but I really do have to take it one game at a time.
"Hopefully if I'm involved on Friday night it will be great to play at the new stadium because that is something I haven't experienced yet.
"When you are in the game you just want to play.
"After being out for so long I thought I would be broken in more gently but I have felt good. The summer wasn't massively difficult. I had a few media commitments which made it easier but in Lyon when I was with the squad it was difficult. I was sat with the physio and the doc and just wanted to be out there warming up with the lads.
"But from the moment the injury happened, I knew I had no chance of playing at the Euros. It was good to be there and be around everyone, but it was also the closest I've got to having the fans' experience too. But nothing beats playing."
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill kept in regular contact with Brunt and his support was greatly appreciated.
"Michael had spoken to me ever since I got injured," said Brunt. "Michael and the medical staff were great.
"The progression we've made under him has been great. He didn't put me under any pressure to come back and play but at the age I am it's only natural people will ask questions.
"But for me, I knew I had to come back to try to play at the very least.
"Michael has always been great with me."
While the supporters are relieved to see Brunt back in the fold they are also grateful that O'Neill hasn't been snapped up by a club in England or Scotland, impressed by the manager's miracle work with Northern Ireland. Brunt is another one of the experienced campaigners surprised to still be working with the former Shamrock Rovers supremo.
"Honestly, I didn't think Michael would be the manager after the Euros," he added.
"I'm really surprised he wasn't linked with more jobs the way other managers were or didn't receive a few offers.
"He's done a great job with us. With the money involved in football it's worth so much.
"Michael has had experiences in Scotland, the League of Ireland and international level but hasn't been in England.
"The rate of turnover of managers is ridiculous though. You need someone to give you a chance and then you need to hit the ground running. It wouldn't be something I would fancy.
"Michael has all the attributes and I'm sure if the right job came up he'd be the right man for it.
"Maybe if he had managed a bigger country or been from another country someone would have come looking him but we'll always be seen as a small country punching above their weight.
"Hopefully at some stage he will get the opportunity to do that in the future and I don't think it is something anyone would deny him."