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I was going to sub Kyle when match was at 0-0, says O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admitted he was going to take Kyle Lafferty off in the second half against Hungary at Windsor Park before a campaign-defining change of mind kept the team on course for Euro 2016 qualification.

Instead of sitting on the bench, Lafferty was still on the pitch in the 93rd minute to score a vital equaliser and earn the home side a 1-1 draw and a point that should prove crucial when all the matches in Group F are completed next month.

Lafferty's injury time leveller means Northern Ireland stayed four points ahead of third placed Hungary. Had he not struck O'Neill's men would have been knocked off the top of the group and be only a single point clear of the Hungarians, who were distraught at the final whistle.

When the game was scoreless, O'Neill was going to substitute his frontline striker, who, after returning from a knee injury, was playing only his second game of the season.

Then Hungary took the lead in the 74th minute and O'Neill decided that his 'talisman' had to remain on the pitch.

"We were taking Kyle off at 0-0. He couldn't give us any more and the ball wasn't sticking but by the time we were waiting to make the substitution it was 1-0," O'Neill said.

"We had to bring Josh Magennis on with Kyle then and get two up top. I felt that was the right option.

"If we took Kyle off, that would be taking our talisman off. And if I was the opposing manager I would be lifted by that. I would be happy to see that if I was Hungary. So we didn't want to give them that hope and satisfaction.

"It was essential at 1-0 that we kept him on the pitch."

Too right it was.

O'Neill will have to do without Lafferty for next month's game at Windsor against Greece - when Northern Ireland will qualify with a win - after the big Fermanagh man collected a third booking of the campaign and a suspension.

Conor McLaughlin will also be banned as will Chris Baird who was red carded after picking up two bookings for off the ball and on the ball challenges in quick succession.

"In my whole time in football, I have never seen a player booked twice in that situation," said O'Neill.

"The referee said Chris was booked for a foul higher up the pitch. No doubt he should have been booked for the second incident, but he didn't know he had already been booked.

"If he did, then Chris wouldn't have made the second tackle. He doesn't alert the player to tell him of the first booking, so it was an unusual decision.

"I can't pretend I know the rules well enough to say if it's legitimate or not but I think it's a very, very harsh decision.

"For a player to be sent off like that, could cost us a place in the finals. So we will look at it very closely.

"Chris apologised afterwards. He is a man and said sorry in the dressing room afterwards. He had a magnificent game for us.

"We have to deal with suspensions - that is the nature of it. We will look at Chris' situation. I am not sure if we can appeal that.

"Aaron Hughes or Paddy McNair can come in at right-back, or Paddy can play in the middle of the pitch.

"Kyle being out is a blow but someone else can step up. We have seen what Josh Magennis is about and he offers us a threat. He is a physical presence and is powerful.

"People don't really appreciate what big Josh gives to the team."

Belfast Telegraph