Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018

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Senegal SEN

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Egypt EGY

Uruguay URY

Russia RUS

Spain ESP

Morocco MAR

Iran IRN

Portugal POR

Denmark DNK

France FRA

Australia AUS

Peru PER

Iceland ISL

Croatia CRO

Nigeria NGA

Argentina ARG

Mexico MEX

Sweden SWE

South Korea KOR

Germany GER

Switzerland SUI

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Poland POL

Panama PAN

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Northern Ireland duty used to be 'grim' but now we must complete the comeback with World Cup spot: Brunt

By Steven Beacom

Chris Brunt's assessment was open, honest and forthright.

Sitting in the bar area of the Culloden hotel this week, the West Brom star spoke about his 'dark' days playing for Northern Ireland and how at times all hope seemed lost.

Tonight, Brunt, with his wand of a left foot, will be a key figure as Northern Ireland bid to make the country's first World Cup finals since 1986 when they face Switzerland at Windsor Park in the first leg of an eagerly anticipated play-off.

Brunt was brilliant in the group stages, playing the best international football of his life, creating goals, scoring them and producing sound displays in defence.

The 32-year-old's high-class form is a sign of character having bounced back from missing the Euro 2016 finals due to injury.

It was a bitter blow, but delve a little deeper and you find it was not the worst period he endured in his Northern Ireland career.

"I have been involved with Northern Ireland since 2004. There's been a lot of grim times," he said at the team's base.

"Coming away for international games a while back, I think a lot of the lads would agree that it wasn't something you could really look forward to because we were on such a low ebb.

"I remember we lost 4-1 away in Estonia (September 2011) one night. That was as dark a place I have been as any. I was only 27 as well. You just think, 'Where is this going?'

"A lot of us are over 30 now and they will tell you the same thing. There were spells before when players didn't want to come, there's no two ways about it. When you see there's no light at the end of the tunnel, it's a difficult one.

"I grew up wanting to play for Northern Ireland. Now I have two kids, and when you go away for 10 days they ask, 'Where are you going? When will you be back?' It gets harder as you get older. Because we're successful now it makes it easier but several years ago it was hard."

The Michael O'Neill era has seen a monumental turnaround, though when Northern Ireland qualified for the Euros, Brunt was unlucky to miss out due to a serious knee injury.

He admitted: "I shed a few tears over it because I realised what had been taken away from me, but things could always be a lot worse."

Brunt considered international retirement but decided to stick around for this World Cup campaign which, to date, has gone so well for him and the team.

"It would be a nice way to finish your international career by getting to the World Cup," said Brunt. "We have limited resources, so the job Michael has done is phenomenal. That's the thing that got me back the most, working with Michael and enjoying the training and playing.

"Over the past three years it's been some of the most enjoyable football I've played in my career."

So will there be more tears if Northern Ireland qualify for Russia? He said: "I'm not massively emotional when it comes to football. I've been known to cry a bit - TV stuff and kids stuff.

"It would be great to do it, but after qualifying there's still six months to go to get there and I know from experience that anything can happen."

Belfast Telegraph

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