One French media outlet labelled him ‘the unknown Irishman’, and no-one is throwing his name into the list of Golden Boot contenders, but few players are so central to their team’s hopes in France as Kyle Lafferty is to Northern Ireland.
The rise of one is inextricably linked to the other — both have spent years traversing Europe for little gain, after all — so the drip-feed of information on his apparent return towards full fitness after injuring a groin muscle in training this week must rank as a form of water torture to the side’s fans.
He wasn’t always embraced warmly. It is less than three years since Lafferty was something of a pariah after a senseless sending-off against Portugal in Belfast that turned the game in the visitors’ favour. Now he is firmly written into Michael O’Neill’s good books after seven qualifying goals.
Only Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Muller, Edin Dzeko and Russia’s Artem Dzyuba scored more on the way to France and Lafferty gives off the impression he is only at the foothills of his international career despite recently earning a 50th cap.
“The first few years of my international career I took the piss,” the 28-year old from Enniskillen said before the tournament. “Turned up whenever I wanted, pissed about and wasn’t concentrating on things. The last two or three years I have settled down, got my head sorted.”
It is rare in modern football for players or managers to admit one player carries a disproportionate wedge of the expectation, but pretty much everyone in the Northern Ireland setup is honest about just how reliant they are on their front man.
“His goals have been massive for us,” said West Brom’s Gareth McAuley. “The campaign before … we weren’t scoring enough goals. The fact he has chipped in with seven has been massive. We are relying on him now. He is the main man … he is the talisman, the focal point of the attack. He’s got that belief. We like him and give him a pat on the back, put up with his antics.”
O’Neill spoke after that Portugal loss about how he needed players he could rely on and his nurturing of Lafferty – a player who responds to carrot rather than stick — has struck a chord with a man who has fed off the faith placed in him by his manager and teammates. That sort of trust hasn’t always been there at club level.
Lafferty has already played professional football in England, Scotland, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey and even his two most successful stints — at Rangers in the SPL and Palermo in Serie B — were dogged by controversies that overshadowed an obvious knack for finding the net.
Both Walter Smith and Ally McCoist had to deal with his indiscipline issues during their respective stints managing Lafferty in Glasgow, with the latter once banning the striker for two weeks after he refused to take the team bus to a game in Tynecastle.
McCoist’s summation of Lafferty at the time — nice but daft — was succinct, but there have been less forgiveable moments, such as when he was criticised for parking his Bentley in a disabled spot outside a supermarket and the two-month ban he received for simulation in Scotland.
His time in Italy ended with his club chairman claiming the player was ”an Irishman without rules” and that he had taken frequent trips to Milan to go “hunting for women” and fellow Northern Ireland striker Josh Magennis was wary of Lafferty when he first joined the squad.
“I have only been in this campaign. I always heard that Kyle was a bit of a maverick and thought he might have a bit of an ego. But since coming into the squad and getting to know him we have gelled tremendously. He is a big sop, whether he likes it or not. He likes to play up. He is the life and soul of our team. In situations like this, when you come away from your family, it is hard but he is someone to laugh at or laugh with. He has progressed so much in his international career and he has the right to be Northern Ireland’s top striker and lead our team to the Euros.”
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