Belfast Telegraph

Chris Brunt remains upbeat despite Northern Ireland's first stumble

By Julian Taylor

He trudged away in disappointment after defeat in Romania - but Chris Brunt admits Northern Ireland are firmly at the core of an interesting Euro 2016 qualifying group mix.

The influential star conceded that the Romanians are the best side in a tense section, with the Ulstermen having already played against Hungary and Greece, both of whom flattered to deceive.

Nevertheless, despite the barren outcome in Bucharest, there is absolutely no reason to lose both faith and momentum - especially since Michael O'Neill's squad have already won three out of four games.

These remain good times to be a Northern Ireland player, with a French fancy at the championships firmly part of the overall master plan. A springtime Windsor Park clash against Finland is next in sight.

There have been surprising results in Group F to date, chiefly Greece falling on their sword at home to Faroe Islands - triggering the inevitable, instant, bulleting of coach Claudio Ranieri.

"If someone had given us nine points from the opening four games we'd have snapped your hand off for it," Brunt asserted. "Back in September we would have been delighted with that.

"Everyone in this group is capable of beating each other and that is what makes it so interesting. We are well in the mix with two home games coming up next year.

"People say there are no easy games in international football but look at the Faroes, who went to Greece and won. We will take the positives and we will be ready to go again in March."

A fresh, revealing feature of this campaign has been the presence and poise of Kyle Lafferty. With the Fermanagh forward having three goals to his name so far, Brunt has witnessed how opponents - Romania especially - have singled him out for questionable attention.

"Kyle has been our danger man and it is no surprise that he has been singled out by other teams," added 48-times capped Brunt.

"He's deceptively quick for someone his size, too, and he gives us so many options on the break.

"In the past he would have gotten a lot more frustrated when he got targeted but credit to him for keeping his cool.

"He is showing how much he has matured as a player in the first four games but I was disappointed for him because we didn't get up to support him."

Frustrated Brunt spurned a rare opportunity to score during a long night for Northern Ireland at the Arena Nationala. Are Romania now the benchmark?

"It shows how far we've came that we come away from Romania so disappointed that we haven't got anything," explained the West Bromwich Albion midfielder. "But the better team won on the night. They were definitely the best team we've played in the group.

"We actually started moving the ball about better when we were 2-0 down but they deserved their win.

"We are disappointed with the manner of the goals we conceded, but when you are defending for that long, it's always difficult.

"When the first goal went in we were still in the game but when the second one went it, it was difficult.

"They move the ball around well, but having said that, we were dangerous on a few occasions on the counter attack and had a few half chances we didn't take."

Belfast Telegraph