x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Chris Brunt climbs the ladder

The West Bromwich Albion winger from Ulster has a knack - and a great free kick - for helping a struggling side.

Chris Brunt has finished two of three full seasons at West Brom as leading scorer.
Chris Brunt has finished two of three full seasons at West Brom as leading scorer.

A tall, muscular winger who plays off either flank, creates goals aplenty, scores more than most, and has a penchant for a spectacular free kick. The temptation is to invite a comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo until you are reminded that Chris Brunt hails from Northern Ireland.

It is not ability that stalls the idea in its tracks, it's a solid, down-to-earth Ulster upbringing.

"Yeah, Ronaldo was good in the air, wasn't he? He'd be a lot better in the air than what I am, I would have thought," said Brunt, the West Bromwich Albion midfielder, before diverting the conversation into the tactical merits of Scott Carson propelling diagonal balls at him to out-jump opposition full-backs.

Such is the way of this likeable Belfast lad. A close friend recalls the day Brunt scored for Sheffield Wednesday in a dramatic Yorkshire derby defeat of Leeds United. Catching up on the phone after the game, Brunt was asked about his strike. "Yeah, it was a decent one," he said. "Watch it tonight on Sky [television]." The friend did as he was told and was bemused to witness a 50-yard angled lob over the goalkeeper.

Decent, indeed.

Brunt has a knack for the spectacular, rising from the bench to take Wednesday into a successful League One play-off in 2005. He has finished two of three full seasons at West Brom as leading scorer, twice including goals that brought promotion.

In the week in which his two-year-old son, Charlie, was born, Brunt scored both an equaliser that secured West Brom's promotion to the Premier League and the goal that won them the Championship.

"I don't think I'll ever match that high," said Brunt, who is awaiting the birth of a second son, "unless something happens this time around."

Yet ask Brunt, 25, for his most memorable goal and he selects his first as a professional footballer. "The free kick against Brighton for Sheffield Wednesday back in 2004," he said. "I remember my mum and dad had sent me a good-luck card from Belfast because they couldn't come to the game. My brother, who was 11 at the time, just wrote me a daft little message, 'Score a decent goal', on the inside of it."

Brunt's career was in a precarious state that March afternoon at Hillsborough. Led to believe that Middlesbrough, his first club, were unlikely to keep him, he had cancelled his Premier League contract early, dropping two divisions in search of a senior debut.

Despite being short on numbers, the Wednesday manager, Chris Turner, was reluctant to use Brunt as a central midfielder, suggesting a switch to left wing - even though a practice match in the position had seemed disastrous.

"The right-back had me in his pocket the whole session, nutmegged me about three times," Brunt said. "But I started on Saturday and we got a free kick about seven minutes into the game. It was those old Mitre balls that you hit as hard as you could and they always came back down, not like these new balls. I put it in the top corner, got man of the match on my debut and didn't really look back from there.

"Moving to Sheffield was a risky thing, but I think as a footballer you've got to take risks because you can only get by on your own performances and ability."

Brunt is equally phlegmatic about Glasgow Rangers' decision to renege on a schoolboy contract after five years training with the club - a broken promise that cost the Scottish club their Belfast scout as well as a future international.

Brunt gives much of the credit for West Brom's unanticipated early form to manager Roberto Di Matteo and his assistant, Eddie Newton. Arsenal were defeated in London, Manchester United hauled in at Old Trafford, and if the Baggies can defeat Manchester City again this afternoon (they beat City 2-1 in the Carling Cup in September) they could end the weekend in the Champions League places.

"They been brilliant from the moment they've walked through the door," Brunt said. "It's just little things that we maybe weren't so great at. We're generally a lot better organised than what we were.

"It's enjoyable to play in because we know when we don't have the ball we're tough to break down and when we do have the ball we create chances to cause problems."

Combine that with a spirit that has grown through three years of relegation and promotion and there is a real sense that West Brom's yo-yo is ready to halt on high.

sports@thenational.ae

7pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 4