Belfast Telegraph

Brunt's Euro pain will lead to new system in finals

By Steven Beacom

Chris Brunt will be hurting right now. Physically and mentally. The pain from rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee will fade. The anguish in his mind about missing out on a dream he has had since he was a child will last a lot longer.

Brunt won't play for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 due to the serious injury he sustained playing for West Brom against Crystal Palace last Saturday. As he was stretchered off at the Hawthorns, the 31-year-old feared the worst.

That news was confirmed yesterday that Brunt would be out for six months after he underwent constructive surgery in, of all places, Lyon, the city where Michael O'Neill's squad will be based in the summer during their stay in France. Adding insult to injury.

Brunt was an 18-month-old toddler the last time Northern Ireland played in a major tournament, the 1986 World Cup. Ever since he could kick a ball he wanted to do what Sammy McIlroy, Norman Whiteside and Billy Hamilton did all those years ago.

He made his international debut in 2004 and in the decade which followed there were more lows than highs playing for his country. He was often criticised by fans who felt he wasn't living up to his promise.

The Belfast man was big enough to say in one interview that his form for Northern Ireland could and should have been better.

That was before the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Ahead of the first game in Hungary, manager O'Neill decided that the experienced Brunt was the man to fill the problem left back position.

Fill it he did. Superbly.

Brunt played in eight out of the 10 group games that ended with Northern Ireland making it to France as table-toppers.

In a largely unaccustomed role, Brunt was consistent in O'Neill's four-man defence. At the other end, wicked deliveries from set pieces with his sweet left foot created vital goals and caused havoc for the opposition.

Without question the Group F campaign saw Brunt play his best football for Northern Ireland. He was savouring the prospect of impressing even more in the Euro finals.

After qualification, the 54 times capped WBA star said: "For all the years I've experienced with Northern Ireland it's great to have something special to take out of it. Qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals gives us something to really look forward to in the summer."

Sadly, Brunt's dream will not come true this year. All this after some clown, claiming to be a WBA supporter, threw a coin at Brunt's face which could have blinded him after losing an FA Cup tie at Reading a fortnight ago. Chris has had a nightmare couple of weeks.

O'Neill and the Northern Ireland players are gutted for Brunt, but the manager will know life and football moves on and that he must find a replacement for the finals. He will use four friendlies prior to France to do just that.

One man's misfortune is another's opportunity. Should O'Neill stick with a four-man defence, Aaron Hughes, Shane Ferguson and Daniel Lafferty have all been mooted as those who could come in at left-back. More likely is for O'Neill to opt for a 3-5-2 formation against Poland, Ukraine and Germany in the Euro group games.

It was the system he employed versus Latvia at Windsor Park in a November friendly with Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart operating in the centre of defence to provide more stability and Conor McLaughlin at right wing-back and Stuart Dallas on the other side offering the ability to counter attack at pace.

O'Neill will hope there are no more injuries. Brunt will hope for a speedy recovery and that Northern Ireland reach the 2018 World Cup finals to make his dream come true. We wish him well.

Belfast Telegraph