Northern Ireland veterans eager to secure World Cup opportunity
Northern Ireland's elder statesmen are driven by a desire to feature at a World Cup finals before they call it a day, defender Chris Brunt has said.
Brunt scored a free-kick in a 2-0 success over the Czech Republic in Belfast on Monday night to take Michael O'Neill's men to the brink of a play-off in November that will determine if they will be involved in Russia next summer.
No Northern Irishman has graced that stage since 1986, while the likes of George Best, record scorer David Healy and Keith Gillespie missed out entirely, and Brunt knows that another talented generation have just one last crack at it.
Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley, both 37, and Brunt, 32, will likely not be around for the qualification campaign to get to Qatar while captain Steven Davis, goalkeeper Michael McGovern and Niall McGinn are all in their 30s too.
At least all of those have featured at a major tournament having been involved at the Euros in France last summer when Brunt sat out due to a knee injury picked up while playing for West Brom.
"You came away with x amount of years with Northern Ireland and a lot of times you would go back depressed - a lot of us have seen those times," said Brunt.
"The younger lads who are in the squad, they are lucky because it wasn't always like this, so if we can get to the World Cup that would be great.
"That's part of the reason after my injury that the lads made it a bit more appealing to come back and if things hadn't have been going that well it may not have been the case.
"But for a few of us now it's probably the last-chance saloon for a tournament and obviously I didn't get to experience the last one so it would be great if that happens.
"It's not the end of the world if it doesn't but we have given ourselves a chance."
One of their best performers on Tuesday was Hughes, who is one month shy of the 20th anniversary of his first senior call-up and filled in ably for Jonny Evans' regular centre-back partner McAuley.
"Look at how well Aaron has done stepping in," Brunt said.
"The two of them (Hughes and McAuley) are like Benjamin Button - they keep getting better as they get older and I think once this campaign's done, we'll have big shoes to fill when the two of them go."
Northern Ireland guaranteed a second-placed finish with their triumph over the Czechs - their record fifth win on the bounce - and eight of the nine group runners-up will advance to a play-off.
Having taken 19 points from a possible 24 that should be enough for Northern Ireland to be one of the eight, even with six of those points discounted in the second-placed race as they came against bottom side San Marino.
That means they can breathe a bit easier ahead of the visit of world champions Germany to Belfast in October.
Though Joachim Low's team are yet to drop a point in qualification, their place at Russia has still not been confirmed due to Northern Ireland's total, meaning it is still mathematically possible for O'Neill's team to actually win the group.
"When the group came out and you see you have Germany, without being disrespectful to our boys, you are pretty much playing for second spot," Brunt admitted.
"We are realistic, Germany are a good team, but it means they come to Belfast next month and we can have a go at them. It's a bit of a free swing.
"I'm sure the atmosphere is going to be as good as Monday night and it will be a difficult place for them to come."