Northern Ireland's Chris Brunt is hungry to fire in double-header, says Michael O'Neill
Manager relieved that Premier League ace still has appetite for Windsor glory
Michael O'Neill says he's relieved to have Chris Brunt back on the big stage for Northern Ireland. The West Brom ace is ready to put his shoulder to the wheel again for his country, keen to leave behind the injury hell that ruled him out of the Euro 2016 finals.
The summer tournament in France was agonising viewing for the 31-year-old who suffered a serious knee injury and it's been a long road back to fitness.
After returning to first-team action in West Brom's 1-1 draw with Tottenham on October 15, Brunt's international recall was confirmed by O'Neill yesterday ahead of the clashes with Azerbaijan at Windsor Park on November 11 and Croatia, also in Belfast, on November 15.
It may be a double-header but it's the Azerbaijan showdown which is concentrating minds as a surprise loss would see O'Neill's men fall six points behind their opponents in Group C.
Will Grigg also returns to the squad and will have an opportunity of featuring in his first match of the campaign, but Watford defender Craig Cathcart misses out with a groin injury.
Brunt's last Northern Ireland appearance was against Finland in a 1-1 draw in Helsinki last October and his return to the fold is the biggest positive for O'Neill ahead of the crucial clash against Azerbaijan.
When asked if he thought the winger might walk away fron international football after his horror injury, O'Neill said: "With all players in their 30s, it's always a risk.
"The big thing for Chris was he didn't want to end his Northern Ireland career by being remembered because he missed out on the Euros.
"His rehabilitation and the work he has done to get back has been fantastic.
"The older you get, the more difficult it is to recover from injury, but nowadays coming back from a cruciate isn't just as career threatening as it was in the past.
"He's a player, and if had he come to me with that decision I would have had to respect that decision.
"But he is such an experienced player that the bonus is he's back.
"I didn't really think he'd want to bow out with the stigma of missing the Euros being attached to his international career.
"So it wasn't something I thought about a great deal. I'm more inclined to look at the positives that he is back and he wants to play."
Brunt, capped 54 times, played eight times for Northern Ireland during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and missing out on Northern Ireland's first major tournament since 1986 will fuel his desire to make it to the World Cup Finals in Russia 2018.
"We had only four players in the Premier League at the weekend," added O'Neill.
"We'd love to have 40, so we can't afford to ignore one of our Premier League players.
"That's the reality. Chris is a Premier League player and has basically been a Premier League player for his whole career.
"We have played him at left-back in recent years, particularly in the Euro qualifying series and he's done a great job for us.
"Just his overall quality and experience of playing top level football is important to us - also his delivery, both from general play and set-pieces.
"When we took Shane Ferguson out of the team, we didn't have another natural left footed player.
"It means we're a little bit predictable in terms of set-pieces.
"Certainly having Chris back available will enhance our threat from set-pieces, but also our delivery from general play.
"Having missed out in the summer, he is keen to get back and play.
"He also recognises the importance of this game as well."
Northern Ireland squad v Azerbaijan (Nov 11) & Croatia (Nov 15):
Goalkeepers: McGovern (Norwich), Mannus (St Johnstone), Carson (Hartlepool Utd); Defenders: Hughes (Kerala Blasters), McAuley (West Brom), J Evans (West Brom), Brunt (West Brom), McGivern (Shrewsbury), C McLaughlin (Fleetwood), Hodson (Rangers), Flanagan (Burton Albion); Midfielders: Davis (Southampton), McGinn (Aberdeen), Norwood (Brighton), C Evans (Blackburn), Ward (Burton Albion), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas (Leeds Utd), McNair (Sunderland), Paton (St Johnstone), Lund (Rochdale); Strikers: K Lafferty (Norwich), Magennis (Charlton), Washington (QPR), Grigg (Wigan)