Cast you mind back to Barnet Chris, that’s where this season’s journey started, and of course our conversation after the game on a very hot day!
“Yeah that was a long time ago now, and obviously turning up pre-season with only four or five senior players, it was a bit weird, there were lads missing though different things, which I suppose is normal, but as usual when you are relegated from the Premier League there are lads trying to move on, but that is part and parcel of that kind of situation, and you sort of accept that as a player. I know it doesn’t look nice from the outside looking in, but that’s the nature of the beast unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.”
Chris continued. “Obviously there were a few things different when we started and it was a very tough pre-season for us and obviously for Darren as well, because a lot of those games were made up with trialists, and looking back to that day at Barnet, I think we had four of five in the team that day, and I wouldn’t think, that anyone would be thinking that situation would be good for a team that has just been relegated from the Premier league, if that makes sense? But then you look at it as well, players like Martin Crainey, he ended up going to Sheffield United and getting promoted, so you have got to take things like that into consideration. It’s probably not very fair on them as well, because when you are looking for somewhere to train, in the hope that they could earn a contract, and in my opinion, we probably never really intended on offering them a contract, it was almost as if you were just getting in a loads of bodies, so that you didn’t have to play a lot of the younger lads in pre-season games, and that’s not really fair on any of them either, so it was just a strange pre-season. We managed to hold on to a few players, and it started to look a lot more promising, and obviously Harvey Barnes came in the last week of pre-season and he made a massive difference to be fair.”
Continuing, “Also, I think this relegation was different, because the times when we have gone down before, the club was set up differently to be able to deal with that, whereas last year it wasn’t, there were a lot of things that had to be sorted out, whereas before, when Jeremy was the Chairman, it was never really going to be a problem. He only had to sell players on his terms, and he only had to do things on his terms, where last year it was slightly different.”
You mentioned Jeremy, has the change of ownership affected you in anyway?
“No I don’t think so, when you are a player you tend not to get too involved in it, but I think as you get a little bit older you tend to see things from a wider perspective maybe, you have seen these things happen before and you know what’s coming next. It’s not always easy, but I think as players, you have just got to get yourself in the best possible shape to play football, whether it is as a starter or not and just get on with it. I think players tend to deal with changes within the club pretty well, you have seen that this year, looking back at the last eighteen months, we have seen three changes of head coach, and you have to be able to deal with that, because it happens so often.”
The opening day defeat to Bolton must have been difficult to take Chris, but then the little man Dwight Gayle arrives, and things start to change. Was that the first corner turned?
“Yeah I think so. I think the expectation on the opening day was ‘we will turn Bolton over easily’, but it was never going to be the case, but to lose the game was really disappointing, because on the day they weren’t better than us, we just didn’t deal with it as we should have, but to be fair we didn’t create a massive amount either, but then as you say, the next couple days, Dwight’s come in and that and has given everyone a lift around the place. He’s a really good lad and a character as well. I have been at this football club a long time, and I’ll put it out there, he has been the best loan signing at the football club in my time, not just for goals and performances on the pitch, but also for the way he has conducted himself off of it. He got himself involved with everybody, everyone got on with him, he trained properly and he dragged the best out of a lot of people. In training as well, he is so competitive. He is just one of those people who just want to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s a daft game on the bus on an away trip, or whether it is a five a side in training, it’s just the way his personality was around the place. He is just different class!
Another loan signing, and of course another revelation, Harvey Barnes, who made such an impact while at the club, then returns to Leicester at a crucial time in the season, that couldn’t have been helpful at all?
“No it wasn’t, He brought a lot of stuff to the team, his game was a lot more attacking, it suited his game and soon as he came we started to play his way. I also think at times a lot of things he did in games probably papered over a few cracks if I’m totally honest, but you could get away with it because you had him in the team, you knew he had got the quality to do something, also with the attacking quality that he has, the emphasis on defending was taken away from him and our job was to just get the ball to him so he could go and do something and for six months of the season he did that, and when he left it was a massive loss for us because I think he scored ten goals and created countless others in half a season. If you sit down and look back, that might have been the difference in us losing out in the play-offs and getting promoted automatically.”
I am reminded of the Sheffield Wednesday away game…..You came on as sub and suddenly brought him into the game and totally transformed it.
“Yeah and that goal he scored that night, the second one especially, showed just how good a player he was and how good he was for us. I think if you also look at it as well, the fact that he has gone back and played for Leicester it makes it that much better because a lot of people at the time were thinking that Leicester called him back because he was doing well for us and doubted that he was actually going to be involved for Leicester but to be fair to him he has gone back and he has managed to play a lot of Premier League games which is what he wants to do, he wants to play in the Premier League for Leicester. It was nice to have him for six months, but it was disappointing to lose him.”
Chris continued. “It was a difficult void to fill as well. Every loan signing is a gamble and obviously that one paid off, it’s the ones that don’t pay off, that’s just the way it is. I suppose every signing generally is a gamble of some description and as I said a difficult one to fill. With Matt Phillips getting injured as well for a long part of the second half of the season, that was a big blow too, because he started the first half of the season really well, he is a big player for us when he is playing well and to miss him from January and remainder of the season, that was a massive loss to us too and I suppose two players with that influence you can’t really replace.”
Most of the season, if I’m honest, you were playing out of position? That must have been difficult.
“No, not really, you’re called to play and you just get on with it, that’s always been my take on it. I think you always just go out and try and give it your best in what-ever you are asked to do. I suppose sometimes, you might not be overly comfortable with it or overly happy about it but at the end of the day I’m not getting any younger and I know in a couple of years I might not be playing football anywhere on a football pitch, so if you get sent out there to do a job you just get on with it, that’s my take on it at the minute and the last couple of years that has probably made me realise that a bit more. I think also with the team trying to play a bit more open and stuff as well, maybe it’s something that I haven’t been used to over the last three or four years, because with Tony and Roy Hodgson before that, it was more structured, very much more team orientated, whereas this year I was more you score four we’ll score five and I think you are relying on somebody to bail you out at the other end of the pitch, because you don’t have that protection that maybe you have been used to over the last few years. Obviously with the age I am now, it’s not always easy to cover fifty or sixty yards space to the middle of the pitch whereas before it was. You look at when Jimmy came in at the back end of the season, we got a lot more solid and you were able to get around a little bit more because you have got a little more support around you as a team as well. I also think it’s the league as well, the Championship has changed an awful lot since the last time we were in it, and it’s a tough, tough league.”
Then came the dismissal of Darren Moore. That must have been a shock Chris? How did it affect you and the team? You’re skipper and probably as close to Darren as anybody.
“Look, it happens so often….I like Darren as a guy, I mean everyone likes Darren as a guy. When he took over at the backend of last season he did a great job but at the end of the day this season was a different job again. I think for a lot of this season a lot of the things he tried to do was right, but I also think that once you see that you’re trying to get promoted but you are dropping points, at the end of the day it’s a business, and developing that business is trying to get you back into the Premier League. That’s when those at the top are making the decisions, some people may think it was harsh the decision for Darren to go, to people outside looking in to the football club probably came completely out of the blue, but I think some of the results we had were really bad results, especially at home, against teams where we should have won games and I think all season we never won more than three games in a row. In this league that’s is not good enough and you have to look at teams like Villa, who at the back end of the season won ten games in a row and that’s what we should have been doing during the year but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I also think that a lot of the things that got us results at the back end of the Premier League last year when Darren took over had maybe changed a lot this season as well. It’s difficult when you are trying to implement new things, at the end of the day pressure is on everybody to get results and get promoted.”
Into the New Year Chris, still high confidence of promotion after one or two sticky patches.
Yes I think so, we had spells when we were disappointed with the points we took but we also had spells when you are still up there, like I said we hadn’t won more than three games in a row, but we were never really out of it until the last three or four weeks of the season. Even when we lost at Bristol City and Leeds United at the back end of the season we still had the chance of pushing for automatic promotion. I honestly think we all believed that we could do it, but the bits and pieces just didn’t fall into place and a culmination of all sorts of things to be fair. Obviously we conceded far too many goals, that was pretty obvious and everybody could see that, but we also scored a lot of goals, but conceding as many goals as we did, we should never have been anywhere near where we were in the league, which speaks well for the lads scoring all those goals. But I think every season that I have been involved over the last ten or twelve years, has been as a team, but I think we moved a little bit away from that this season, relying too much on individuals, and you can’t do that, you can’t heap that sort of pressure on one person to score those goals or create those chances, because at the end of the day you do everything as an eleven out there on the pitch, so it’s not fair to put pressure like that on your team mates.
The Play-off ties against Villa, the biggest disappointment of an ultimately disappointing season Chris?
Yeah. We were disappointed after the first game to not come away with anything, but that’s life isn’t it. That can happen. We have done that to teams this year and obviously it happened to us. It’s not very nice, but you know you have the second leg and a chance of turning it around. We actually ended the season pretty well at home which was really good because for the majority of the season we were pretty rubbish. That was obviously a big bonus for the back end of the season because we knew getting them back to The Hawthorns we were still in the game. You could see when we were down to ten men in the first leg, they were pushing, pushing and pushing trying to get a third goal and we actually did well to hang on and I think we always felt that when we got them back for the second game that we were still in it and had a good chance of going through but penalties are cruel, and with me not being on the pitch then you lose a penalty taker. Stefan Johansson is possibly a penalty taker, and then you end up with no penalty takers on the pitch as well. Credit to their goalie, he made two good saves, and if you think that throughout the season Sam Johnstone has saved what four or five penalties and yet he wasn’t able to save any in the shootout. I think you just have to hold your hands up and say it wasn’t to be, it wasn’t to be our season, I don’t think.
Quickly getting back to Villa Park Chris. A few controversial decisions there. After Dwight was dismissed, I noticed you and James talking to the referee. Anything you can reveal?
The atmosphere at Villa Park was something else and I think we thought that the fans influenced the referee massively and I think when you are going to send somebody off in the semi-final of the play-offs then you have got to be one hundred per cent sure that’s the right thing to do. I think the first booking for time wasting was by the letter of the law, then yes, I suppose the referee did get it right, but you know I think the way the Villa players reacted and the fans reacted, then the referee has got to take a bit of time and make the decision himself, but in the first game he couldn’t wait to get his card out of his pocket. Of course it’s killed the tie a bit, because you have lost one of your best players, and then if you get through to Wembley, he doesn’t get to play at Wembley either, so I think that’s what I was saying to him, ‘if we did get through, you’re costing someone the chance to play in a play-off final’ It’s not great. But if you look at the second game, when he gave me the second yellow card, I thought the referee was pretty good on the evening, and I don’t think I could have too many arguments about the second one. To be fair to him, he did take his time and you appreciate he has had a think about it. Obviously I’m disappointed, and I know I have got to achieve everything I can at my age now, I think it was more about the reality that I might not get a chance to play in the Premier League again, that of course was a good opportunity, but then that’s life, that’s football. Sometimes it goes for you and sometimes it doesn’t.
Looking back on you career at The Hawthorns since coming through the door in 2007. A few ups and downs Chris….
“Of course, but I think as footballers you want to win and you want that little bit more, so at the end of a new season you just dust yourself down, you get on with it and try and set out next season, try and start off well next season and hopefully things might go one bit better for you. That’s all you can do now. I think about the other night as well, I was sitting in Jill’s office after I had been sent off, watching the end of the game, and Martin Swain came in and he was really like upbeat about everything, the football club had actually produced something in this game, the atmosphere in the stadium and everything around it as well, so hopefully going forward that was a big night for the football club. The last four or five years have been ‘sketchy’ at best I suppose, and the atmosphere around the place has not been the best at times. Obviously when Tony Pulis was manager, everybody vented their frustrations at that and since then it has been a bit of a mess we haven’t really had any sort of solidity at the club so that’s obviously down to Mark Jenkins and Luke Downing, that’s their job now to try and do that, try to achieve that again at the football club. It is a great football club, with great people working there as well, and it’s up to us to try and make sure things get a bit better than they have been over the last couple of seasons.”
The atmosphere last Tuesday evening was extraordinary, as good as the great evenings against Manchester United in 1978, Valencia in 1979 and more recently Swansea in 1993.
“Yeah, that’s the best atmosphere I have experienced at our ground, I think when we played Spurs at home at the back end of last season. That was a really good day as well. When you are a football fan, it’s easy to sit there and vent your frustrations and it’s easy to be negative, I think when you sit and watch it’s easier to pick on peoples mistakes rather than when people have done well, but the other night, no matter what went for us or what didn’t go for us, the fans didn’t get frustrated, they stayed behind. Obviously people are going to make mistakes, there is going to be misplaced passes, the players are only human, nobody in any walk of life go through any job without making a mistake, but our jobs are sort of scrutinised by twenty five or thirty thousand people every week that’s what makes you a professional player, rather than a Sunday league player, your ability to deal with that. If we can get The Hawthorns rocking like that as many times as possible next season, we have got a good chance of maybe achieving something as well, because I know that the fans can be the twelth man and things like that can actually drag you through games. Even in extra time and we were a man down, the fans dragged the lads through that game, just by their support and the energy they created around the place. It’s good to see as a player, because you appreciate that a lot more than maybe people getting on your back when you have made a mistake. It’s easier to come back and have another go when you know that people are behind you than when they are on your back. You can just as easy go into your shell and not do what you are good at.”
A new manager on the horizon Chris, your thoughts on that….
“Yeah, that’s the thing, obviously the club have had a while to try and make a decision. Jimmy (Shan) has done a great job, I have a lot of time for Jimmy, the gaffer, certainly taking over at the back end of this season, because he is good friends with Darren, and it couldn’t have been easy for him, he was thrown in at the deep end a little bit really. I don’t know how much he expected to be put into that situation, but he did everything that he could to try and get us to the play off final and try and get us promoted, somebody with not a massive amount of first team experience. I think all the lads took to him really well, and he immediately got everyone’s respect, just for the way he got on with his coaching sessions from day to day. Look, I’m sure the people in charge have got people in mind who they would like to see at the football club and it’s up to them to keep us going. Although we lost the tie over the two legs, I think the last game was a pretty good performance, a quality performance, to take us into the next season.”
What about the future for Chris Brunt. You have now equaled Bobby Hope’s 410 appearances, a milestone in itself, what does the future hold for yourself.
“Only time will tell I suppose. I feel OK. Obviously there is nothing you can do about your age, there will lads that are younger than me and can run more than me. You can’t change time can you? Look, I’ll get away have a bit of a rest have a break with the family. Take the kids away, that’s the sort of thing you don’t get the chance to do very often, because both of mine are in school, and week-ends are taken up by football, so I will look forward to that, have a bit of a break, get away from everything, especially around the area with Villa being in the final, it will be nice to be not in the area (ha-ha), and I’ll just report back pre-season same as I did last year and see what’s in store and just get on with it. That will be nineteen pre-seasons. It’s never something you don’t look back upon with any great fondness pre-season, but I’m glad to be still in the position to be able to do it, and if it means getting myself fit, I’ll just aim to play in as many games as I can again next season. Like I said, I’m not daft, I know I’m not going to be able to play as many games as maybe I could do before, or want to, but that’s part and parcel of getting older.”
Continued, “I don’t really know any different, you go and you train Monday to Friday and you play on a Saturday. That’s it isn’t it. That’s your job, you get on with it and you do it for as long as you can, until somebody tells you, you can’t. That’s pretty much what I’m thinking. I might have to look into other things going forward, but I think I can play for another couple of seasons, whether it be at West Brom or whether it be somewhere else, I don’t know. Look it’s as everybody tells you, you keep going until somebody tells you otherwise don’t you. Talking to Steven Reid when he came back into coaching, he was saying the same thing, you keep playing for as long as you can, because things change when you are coaching, when you are not able to play, that’s pretty much what I’ll be doing.”
410 appearances for Albion Chris, did it ever cross your mind that you would get that far way back in 2007?
“No not really, I didn’t really give it a thought to be honest. I was excited to come to the football club. You just get on with it don’t you, you just play that’s it. Look, I’m just grateful I have been able to do it, hopefully it means I will get a few more before my contract runs out at the end of next season, and obviously you take it from there, that’s the way football goes.”
Looks like that will be without Mozza (James Morrison) next year, we’ll have to wait and see, but looking back on the testimonial evening, what a night that was.
“Yeah, I knew the supporters club would put on a great night. I really appreciated it and know Mozza did as well. We don’t get an awful lot of time to do stuff like that together, involving your families too. You know me pretty well, I don’t like to make too much fuss about anything I like to just get on with stuff. Look it was a lovely evening and it was nice to share it with friends and family. We both really appreciated it, something we can look back on over time.”
Continued, “At the end of the day, I know it’s our job, but we have both done our very best for the football club. I think over the seasons we have both been involved in some reasonably successful times in this modern age at the football club and I think for the two of us to be there that long and play that many games together, it’s been great.
I have known Mozza since he was fifteen, from the time I first came over to Middlesbrough. He lived at home, but he helped me a lot. He was a year younger than me but he was one of the lads that you could always relate to, to speak to, always had a bit of laugh with, and it’s nice that I have been able to share so much of my career with him. But you never know the new manager will have a final say in whatever goes on. If that is to be his last season at the football club, then I’m just gutted that we couldn’t get to Wembley in the play-off final.”
Chris Brunt-Laurie Rampling – May 2019.