Sunday 18 February 2018

Chris Brunt's Northern Ireland return "couldn't have gone much better"

Chris Brunt was all smiles upon his international return
Chris Brunt was all smiles upon his international return

Chris Brunt admitted his return to the international scene after 13 months away was virtually perfect as he starred in Northern Ireland's 4-0 triumph over Azerbaijan in Belfast.

Knee ligament damage had kept West Brom's Brunt, 31, out from February to October, meaning he was restricted to a watching brief at Euro 2016, but he made up for lost time with a fine performance as Michael O'Neill's men moved second in their World Cup qualifying campaign.

Brunt defied an early head injury and demonstrated his brilliance from set-piece situations by delivering the ball which Gareth McAuley nodded home, and he was credited with rounding off the night by scoring the fourth, though his captain Steven Davis may have got a decisive touch before the ball nestled in the net.

Either way, Brunt was delighted to mark his Northern Ireland return with such a convincing victory over a nation that had not conceded in their previous three qualifiers.

"It couldn't have gone much better for me and the team," he said.

"The result was obviously the important thing and then the fact we kept a clean sheet. Azerbaijan were coming here on the back of not conceding a goal in three games so it was important for us to put them on the back foot and try and score some goals.

"We obviously did that and to come away with a 4-0 win is great. In the second half they may have had a bit more of the ball but I don't really recall Michael McGovern having to make more than one save throughout the game."

Brunt's road to rehabilitation, which his club had chronicled on social media recently, had seen him lifting the equivalent of 40 elephants.

Such physical excursions were also accompanied by mental deliberations of whether there would ever be a place in O'Neill's team once more.

"I must admit I did sit and think about playing international football while I was out," Brunt added.

"A lot of the time you are just working hard to get fit but it did cross my mind.

"I've played a few games for West Brom over the last few weeks and coming here was going to give me another chance to get 90 minutes under my belt - if selected. Thankfully I was and able to play my part in the win.

"I played the whole game and was a bit tired towards the end but that is to be expected considering I've hardly played. To be involved in a couple of goals just made the night for me."

Whether he can stake a legitimate claim to being the scorer of the fourth goal remains uncertain, even after replays, though Brunt is happy for others to decide if he should be credited with his second international goal, and his first in seven years.

"I'm not too sure what actually happened," he admitted.

"At first I thought it did hit off Davo so it was his goal. But if he is giving it to me, then I'll gladly take it. It doesn't really matter who scores the goals, it's just important we win.

"The shot was on target so that was the main thing from my point of view. I'm sure it will be debated on TV and the pundits will decide. But the important thing is it went in and completely killed them off."

Press Association

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