Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Gareth McAuley: Stats show how Chris Brunt was among Premier League elite

Chris Brunt played with Gareth McAuley for West Brom
Chris Brunt played with Gareth McAuley for West Brom
Gareth McAuley

By Gareth McAuley

Even in achieving an incredible feat this week, Chris Brunt was quick to pass on the praise.

Brunty, my former West Brom and Northern Ireland team-mate, was named in the top 10 Premier League assist makers during the last decade, alongside the likes of David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

His reaction when I spoke to him was: "I am only as good as the players who headed home my crosses."

That's Brunty, always modest and refusing to bask in the limelight of such a great achievement.

I, alongside the likes of Craig Dawson, were fortunate to attack a number of Brunty's crosses - scoring vital goals for West Brom.

But Brunty was much more than a player who crossed quality balls in with his left foot.

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Brunty had scouted the opposition and told us exactly where he would be crossing the ball to and why. He planned our runs and technically he was very good. Nine times out of 10 when we met a Brunty cross, we scored. That's how important he was to our attacking play.

I always felt confident with the ball at Brunty's feet.

His range of passing was outstanding, he could ping the ball to a team-mate's feet and he really had a natural ability.

I know he came in for some stick from Northern Ireland fans during the Nigel Worthington years but you have to remember, that was a time when we didn't have a great deal of the ball. We were turning up in hope that we'd win rather than having any sort of plan or strategy.

It was nearly impossible for a player like Brunty, who thrived with the ball at his feet, to shine. He couldn't display his range of passing or his excellent ball control, while efforts from dead ball situations were limited. Basically we were asked to turn up, no prep, it was just left to the players to try their best to win.

Now fast forward to life under Michael O'Neill and Brunty was a different player, a real attacking threat down the left and in midfield while he showed tremendous versatility in moving to left-back, where he also played on occasions in the Premier League under Tony Pulis.

With his range of passing from left-back, he gave Northern Ireland so many options and allowed Michael to play Josh Magennis on the right wing, so that Brunty's pin-point cross-field balls could set up a new attacking dimension for us.

Brunty was a crucial player for Northern Ireland during the Euro 2016 qualifiers so it was devastating to lose him to injury - especially when the incident that caused the cruciate knee problem, challenging Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha, looked so innocuous.

I know how much it hurt for Brunty to miss out on the finals and we as players were left feeling empty. But in typical Brunty fashion, he accepted his fate, was mentally strong, supported us out in France and put all his focus into his rehab and coming back in great shape.

And that's why it was so painful to miss out on the 2018 World Cup, losing in controversial circumstances to Switzerland. He played such an important part during those qualifiers and deserved to grace the stage of a major finals - just like we'd done during the Euros.

After that, it didn't surprise me that he called it a day internationally - it was a sensible decision because he needed to protect that knee if he was to play on at club level. He'd put so much effort into getting back to a certain level that he'd had very little time off and I think the time was right. He needed those extra days off when players are away on international duty to rest and be with his family.

Brunty is now mostly on the bench at West Brom, however I'm sure he is still an influential voice in that dressing room. He may come across as shy and retiring at times, but whenever something needed to be said at half-time, to a player or the team as a whole, he said it.

He is extremely knowledgeable, has a good footballing brain and if he wants to be a coach in the future - I know he has done his coaching badges - I believe he would be an asset to any club.

Brunty, for the contribution he made to West Brom's spell in the Premier League, certainly deserves to be named alongside the elite.

Belfast Telegraph


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