Belfast Telegraph

We are now in the frame to hit big time again, says Chris Brunt

By Graham Luney

Chris Brunt says it's a real thrill to be involved with a Northern Ireland side hungry for major tournament action.

The West Brom ace, who made his senior international debut against Switzerland in 2004, has endured tough times with his country and the goal of reaching a major finals has often been out of reach.

It was a horrific twist of fate for the winger when a knee injury ruled him out of the Euro 2016 finals but the Belfast man is back fit and firing with the dream of making the World Cup finals in Russia 2018 a realistic target.

The low moments and embarrassing defeats are a fading memory as Michael O'Neill's side challenge for a play-off spot in qualifying Group C.

Rather than suffer a hangover after the fairytale in France, which ended with a defeat to Wales at the last-16 stage, Northern Ireland players have shown they have an appetite for more.

Brunt is also driven by his own personal agony of missing out in the summer but he's simply thrilled to be fit again and involved in a squad that continues to show plenty of pride but little fear.

"I think that's the big thing," admitted the 32-year-old when reflecting on the expectations of this campaign compared to previous qualifying battles.

"Obviously everything's still to play for and in the past that hasn't always been the case, you were maybe fighting to actually try to win a game in the group, or losing games when people expected you to turn up and get a result.

"It's just nice that we have that confidence, especially at home, that we can go out and give anybody a game, and hopefully try to win the game.

"I think teams are starting to fear coming here; the last two or three years have been really consistent regarding results, especially at home, but even the away performances. In the past, away pretty much meant no points but it's not like that any more."

Thirteen months on from rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament, Brunt is back in business.

A gruelling rehabilitation period followed at the age of 31 as Brunt lifted the equivalent of 40 elephants and completed what amounted to 10 triathlons before making his comeback in October. And the left-sided player has been in fine fettle ever since, helping the Baggies to eighth in the Premier League standings and scoring on his international return in a 4-0 triumph over Azerbaijan in November.

"Touch wood, everything's been good, I probably couldn't have asked for a much better return," said Brunt, who signed a new deal with his club in February.

"I think I've only come off the bench twice for West Brom and I've started pretty much every other game since.

"That's the best way of looking at it.

"I've hardly missed any training at all, I feel good, I feel quite strong. Maybe that time out gave me the opportunity to work on other things that will hopefully benefit me in the latter stages of my career."

With Germany hot favourites to qualify as group leaders, the battle for that precious play-off spot is hotting up.

Tomorrow night's opponents at Windsor Park, Norway, have struggled to sparkle, winning only one of their four matches to date but with a new manager in charge - Iceland's Euro 2016 miracle man Lars Lagerback - they will arrive in Belfast like a wounded lion determined to restore some pride.

"It's always difficult, there's no easy games in international football," said former Sheffield Wednesday ace Brunt.

"With the record we have got at home recently, people may be expecting just to turn up for another win but that's not always the case.

"They have a new manager who has a lot of experience at international level and has done well in the past, so I'm sure they'll be well drilled and well organised and they'll know what we're all about.

"It'll be a tough game, I'm sure he'll have different ideas for them to get results. Obviously they haven't started the group as well as they would have wanted to so that's always one you have got to be careful with. We've given ourselves a good chance in the first few games; we have momentum coming off the last campaign.

"The way things went in the summer it was nice to experience it in some shape or form.

"Obviously not playing was disappointing so it would be nice to get to a tournament again, but it's a lot more difficult getting to a World Cup than it was to France.

"I know we won our (Euro 2016 qualification) group so we would have been there regardless, but there are a lot fewer European teams that qualify for the World Cup.

"With Germany in the group as well, barring something unexpected, you probably would think they'll run out winners, so it's going to be tough, but we've given ourselves a good chance so far. The lads that were there in the summer and the lads coming through have got that bit more experience.

"We've sort of carried it on and the start we've made is great. The coaching staff and medical staff keep you on your toes - Michael (O'Neill) is very good at approaching each game individually, he never looks too far ahead."

After suffering his injury hell ahead of the Euro 2016 finals, some fans might have feared Brunt would have brought the curtain down on his international career but no player would want to leave the stage in that fashion.

Although he feels strong now, Brunt will never take anything for granted and it's very much one game at a time as he knows everything can change in an instant.

"That's just the way it is, the way it's going to be, regardless of whether it's international or normal football, with the nature of the injury and the age I am," said Brunt, who will win his 57th cap tomorrow.

"But the way things have been going at the club, I've felt good, I've played a lot of football this season, in a few different positions as well.

"I think the time out has benefited me - hopefully it has in the long run. Things are okay at the minute - I'll try and get this one out of the way and then see what happens."

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