Duo confident of Euro qualification
Published 05/09/2014 | 16:11
Northern Ireland stalwarts Aaron Hughes and Chris Brunt are cautiously optimistic of emerging from a "wide open" Euro 2016 group.
The pair are among their country's most experienced campaigners, sharing 136 caps and a combined 26 years of international football, but both are still searching for a first major tournament appearance.
There are unlikely to be too many more chances, with Hughes 34 and Brunt approaching his 30th birthday, and the one in front of them is as enticing as they have experienced.
There are no heavy-hitters in Group F - they start against Hungary on Sunday and also face Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands - and the play-off on offer for the third-placed side seems an achievable aim.
Hughes and Brunt have been around long enough to temper any undue enthusiasm with a shot of realism, but spirits remained high as they touched down in Budapest.
"I think we can do it, but all the other teams will be saying the exact same thing," said Hughes.
"In our World Cup group a lot of people would have said Russia and Portugal will be the top two and the rest are fighting for order but it's very hard to predict this one.
"Greece are consistent and know what it takes to get through but everyone else on any given night can beat each other.
"That throws the group wide open and we have to be confident we can do it."
West Brom captain Brunt echoed those sentiments, sensing a real chance to take Northern Ireland back to the big stage for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.
"You've got to be confident going in," said the midfielder.
"It's going to be tough but with the extra teams going through this time it's got to be the best chance we've had for a long time.
"It's important we get off to a good start in the group. The other teams will be thinking of that as well, especially Greece, given that they were in the World Cup but they aren't, with respect, a Spain or a Germany.
"But you don't get to the World Cup knockout stages without being a good side, so everyone expects them to qualify from the group. There is second and a play-off place up for grabs though.
"This campaign is going to be big for everyone. I want to contribute and have a successful campaign but it's down to improving results on the pitch."
Two of Northern Ireland's biggest frustrations in recent years have been their poor form on the road and Brunt's disappointing goals record - just one goal in 46 caps.
A result against Hungary would quickly turn around the first of those issues, but Brunt warned his own search for a second goal may be one of the sacrifices along the way.
"Of course you want to score more goals, but if you take away David Healy then you could probably say it's a problem for most of us in the camp.
"It's a different responsibility at international level away from home. A lot of times away from home with Northern Ireland we're under a lot of pressure, but we often defend really well and that can impact on us in an attacking sense.
"If getting a result means more defending I'll take it. It really doesn't matter who scores though, even if (goalkeeper) Roy Carroll smacks one in."
For Hughes, this is the second qualifying campaign since he reversed his retirement.
It is widely assumed it will also be his last but having called it a day once and changed his mind he is no longer willing to predict his future.
"That question is always going to be around when you're at the age I'm at, especially after making the U-turn a couple of years ago, but regardless of whether this was my second campaign or my last this is as good a chance as we've had in a long time.
"I'm taking each game as it comes now and not looking past Sunday.
"Look at the guy in the World Cup (43-year-old Colombia goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon), it's always possible."