Northern Ireland's perfect mix of youth and experience paying off: Brunt
Chris Brunt feels a healthy blend of youth and experience is keeping this Northern Ireland squad on course for back-to-back major tournaments.
The West Brom ace, who made his Northern Ireland debut against Switzerland in 2004, was cruelly ruled out of last summer's Euro 2016 finals in France through injury but now he's fired up to keep Michael O'Neill's side on the road to the World Cup finals in Russia.
Too many of Northern Ireland's qualifying campaigns since the late 1980s have failed to capture the nation's imagination, but now expectation levels have been raised under O'Neill's shrewd management.
When asked yesterday what made this squad so special, 32-year-old Brunt pointed to a good mix of experienced players and young talent hungry to impress.
"We have a good balance between experience and the younger lads coming through," said Brunt, who returned to the Northern Ireland side for the first time in 13 months when he netted during the 4-0 victory over Azerbaijan at Windsor Park in November.
"Even those in the middle of the group have 30 to 40 caps now. I think it takes a lot to grow into international football. The more experience you get the better you become. In the friendly games and the tournament a lot of lads got a lot of caps they wouldn't have got before.
"I think I missed around 10 from injury. It's not often you get 10 games in under a year in international football. The young lads who have come into the squad have added a lot and I think they mix well. Everyone blends in well and gets on well. To be fair to Michael, he has created that with the way he sets up the trips and the training camps."
This clash against Azerbaijan in Baku on Saturday could be a defining fixture in the context of Group C. A defeat would give Northern Ireland's play-off rivals fresh belief and hope.
As well as being a tough battle on the road, the timing of the showdown is hardly ideal for O'Neill and the players, some of whom are lacking match fitness.
"It's going to be good to get it out of the way," confessed Brunt. "It's not a good time of year for us to be honest. European leagues go on a bit longer than ours so it is a difficult time of year to have the game.
"We've come out to Turkey where it is a good bit warmer to try and adapt and acclimatise to what it will be like on Saturday. We have worked hard, it's been tough and it's almost had a pre-season feel about it because some of our lads are at different stages fitness wise.
"The game on Friday against New Zealand was good. It gave lads minutes on the pitch and showed where we needed to be. The heat is going to play a big part in the game.
"You don't get time to switch off anymore. It gets shorter and shorter every year now. When I first started playing professionally you got seven or eight weeks off and it dwindles now.
"You get three or four and they are split up now. That's just the way football is going. I haven't had that much time off to lose my fitness."
O'Neill has revealed that Gareth McAuley will be fit to feature in Baku but, considering his lack of match fitness, it appears highly unlikely the Larne man will start the game.
His Baggies team-mate Brunt hopes the defender can win his 72nd cap and even bring his goal tally up to double figures.
"You never know really when someone gets injured how they will recover," added Brunt. "When he comes off he is not one to go down when there is nothing there.
"Obviously we know it will be touch and go. Hopefully he can get through this week in training and he will be alright to play on Saturday. He played pretty much every game for us and coming off the back of the Euros he didn't have much time off. It's been even longer for him than most."
Brunt is possibly tired of being constantly reminded that he missed the Euro 2016 finals but he will channel that anger in a way that will help Northern Ireland's World Cup dream.
"Not getting to play in the summer was disappointing," he added. "It's part and parcel of football and there's not much you can do about it. I missed the first couple of games of the World Cup campaign and saw that the boys were doing well and since then we have continued to give ourselves a chance of qualifying and a good chance of making the play-offs. It will take a miracle to stop Germany winning the group but we have a realistic chance of a play-off spot and it would be great to qualify for a World Cup.
"It will be tough and I think the next couple of games will go a long way to determining that."
• ARDS have announced they will take on a Rangers XI in a pre-season friendly next month.
The Rangers side for the July 18 friendly (kick-off 7.30pm) will be managed by their Under-20s boss Graeme Murty.
Meanwhile, Portadown have confirmed the signing of 19-year-old centre-back Adam McCallum after his release from Linfield.