Saturday 21 July 2018

'I shed tears over it, when I realised what had been taken away'

'It was late February last year when the West Bromwich Albion defender fell awkwardly as he challenged Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha and the next day his worst fears were confirmed.' Photo: Getty
'It was late February last year when the West Bromwich Albion defender fell awkwardly as he challenged Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha and the next day his worst fears were confirmed.' Photo: Getty

James Ducker

It promises to be one of the biggest nights of football Belfast has witnessed and, shortly before Northern Ireland step on to the field at Windsor Park tonight for the first leg of their World Cup play-off against Switzerland, Michael O'Neill will remind them of how far they have come since the dark days early in his reign.

"The one thing I would say to them is, 'don't fear the situation, embrace it and make sure whatever happens, when you look back, there are no regrets'," the manager said.

"The good thing is that when you've been through the experiences that the likes of Steven Davis and Jonny Evans have been through, you don't want to go back.

"That's the only motivation you need to maintain the level we've got to - qualifying for the Euros, reaching the last 16 of that tournament and now being in a World Cup play-off with the aim of getting to Russia. The players don't want to let it go."

Northern Ireland qualified for the 1958 and 1982 World Cups by beating Italy and Israel in Belfast, but while there will still be another 90 minutes to play against the Swiss after this first leg, a favourable result will dramatically boost the country's prospects going into the second leg in Basel on Sunday.

For Chris Brunt, the motivation is two-fold. He knows all about those dark days to which O'Neill was referring, when Northern Ireland won just two of 31 games leading up to the first match of qualifying for Euro 2016, and Brunt admits, it was a battle just to summon the energy to keep turning up.

Chris Brunt was forced to watch on as his Northern Ireland team-mates prepared for the Euro 2016 game against Ukraine after missing the tournament with a cruciate injury Photo: Getty
Chris Brunt was forced to watch on as his Northern Ireland team-mates prepared for the Euro 2016 game against Ukraine after missing the tournament with a cruciate injury Photo: Getty

But the experience of missing out on the Euros in France, the first time since the 1986 World Cup that Northern Ireland had reached a major tournament, after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, has only strengthened his desire to get to Russia.

It was late February last year when the West Bromwich Albion defender fell awkwardly as he challenged Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha and the next day his worst fears were confirmed.

Twice he had to hang up the phone to his wife and parents after choking up with emotion as he tried to deliver the news.

"I shed a few tears over it, I'll be honest, because I realised what had been taken away," Brunt, 32, said.

"I went to France, did some media stuff and got to stay around the squad but that was as close as I would get to playing.

"The hardest one to watch was the win over Ukraine in Lyon. I wasn't doing any media stuff and I'm sat there on the bench next to the physio and doctor watching the lads warm up. That's the only time I really felt like I was missing out.

"But I feel lucky to now be in a position where I can get to a World Cup. I have been involved with Northern Ireland since 2004 and there have been a lot of grim times. We lost 4-1 in Estonia one night in 2011 and that was as dark a place I have been. I was only 27 as well and you're just thinking, '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. When you see there's no light at the end of the tunnel, it's a difficult one."

Even if Northern Ireland do qualify for Russia, though, Brunt will be treading carefully.

"I fell down the stairs one night wearing a pair of socks about six weeks after doing my cruciate," he said.

"The wife and kids were in the house and thought I had done the ligament again because I squealed that loud."

O'Neill had hoped to be drawn against the Swiss. They won nine of 10 games in qualifying but beyond Portugal; Hungary, the Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra did not prove much competition.

Indeed, if O'Neill's side can contain Stoke play-maker Xherdan Shaqiri, and perhaps antagonise the combustible Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, while keeping their own discipline, they will have a chance.

Seven of Northern Ireland's likely starters, including their entire midfield, are a booking away from suspension for the second leg.

"Northern Ireland is the most difficult opponent any of the four seeded nations could have been drawn against," Shaqiri said. "Everybody is full of respect for them. It's no secret that their most important qualities are their physical power, the structure of their game and their dangerous corners and free-kicks."

Northern Ireland v Switzerland
Live, Sky Sports Main Event, 7.45

Irish Independent

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