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Kyle Lafferty scare is first bump on our French Euro 2016 adventure

Drama shows how quickly nightmare could unfold

By Steven Beacom

Published 08/06/2016

Big drama: Kyle Lafferty hobbles out of Northern Ireland training in France, but manager Michael O’Neill later said the star striker is fine
Big drama: Kyle Lafferty hobbles out of Northern Ireland training in France, but manager Michael O’Neill later said the star striker is fine

Kyle Lafferty slid to the turf with pain etched over his face. Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill anxiously looked on at his star striker, who was holding his groin.

The training session, which had been open to the public and media, was halted.

It did not look good. Gingerly, Lafferty rose to his feet and with the help of Irish FA medical staff hobbled away from the pitch.

As he entered the changing room, all those watching the 28-year-old from Fermanagh wondered if his Euro 2016 race had been run without him even reaching as far as the starting blocks.

And to think before this everything had been going so well. Perfectly, in fact.

There had been three worthwhile training camps in Manchester, Dublin and Austria and two friendlies in which Northern Ireland enjoyed the ideal Windsor Park send-off, beating Belarus 3-0 with Lafferty, Conor Washington and Will Grigg on target, followed by a battling 0-0 draw in Slovakia to extend the record-breaking unbeaten run to 12 matches.

On arrival in France, the players loved the team hotel and the facilities.

All was going according to O'Neill's masterplan.

Then yesterday at Saint-Gerges-de-Reneins, just outside Lyon, with hundreds of locals enthusiastically waving specially made Northern Ireland flags during the training session, the juggernaut was stopped in its tracks when Lafferty lunged for a ball in the type of challenge he has made most of his life.

Everyone feared the worst. Within seconds, word was spreading around social media and a 'Pray for Kyle' hashtag was doing the rounds on Twitter.

The Northern Ireland football squad with manager Michael ONeill before leaving for the Euro Finals.
The Northern Ireland football squad with manager Michael ONeill before leaving for the Euro Finals.
Michael McGovern. Age: 31 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 10 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Like a fine wine, Enniskillen man Michael is improving with age. Experience of Euro 2016 will make him even better.
Roy Carroll Age: 38 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 44 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: I’ve known Roy since he was a kid. Brilliant guy and a top goalkeeper. Now the Windsor penalty king, he is great for team morale.
Alan Mannus Age: 34 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 8 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Third choice he may be, but if called upon, as he showed versus Belarus on Friday night, Alan won’t let the side down.
Craig Cathcart Age: 27 Position: Defender Caps: 27 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Has established himself as a quality Premier League defender and international. Vital to Northern Ireland now.
Jonny Evans Age: 28 Position: Defender Caps: 48 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Has the ability to have a big tournament and show why Manchester United should never have sold him.
Gareth McAuley Age: 36 Position: Defender Caps: 60 Goals: 7 Beacom’s verdict: Big G has become a huge favourite with the fans and rightly so. Huge influence and dangerous at set-pieces.
Luke McCullough Age: 22 Position: Defender Caps: 5 Goals: 0 Verdict: May not feature in France, but has an important part to play in training and be ready if required. Can learn much from likes of McAuley.
Conor McLaughlin Age: 24 Position: Defender Caps: 17 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Conor has been magnificent since being a surprise choice in the first Euro qualifier. Will relish shining in France.
Lee Hodson Age: 24 Position: Defender Caps: 15 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Clearly impressed manager Michael O’Neill in training to make the trip. Steady performer. Could get some game time.
Aaron Hughes Age: 36 Position: Defender Caps: 99 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Aaron is a Northern Ireland legend. Even when the team struggled he was Mr Consistency. Delighted he is going to the finals.
Paddy McNair Age: 21 Position: Defender Caps: 8 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Looks like a seasoned international when he plays in the holding midfield role for his country. Could be a key player in France.
Chris Baird Age: 34 Position: Defender Caps: 77 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Another brilliant servant. His vast experience will be needed on and off the pitch. Reliable when the going gets tough.
Steven Davis Age: 31 Position: Midfielder Caps: 82 Goals: 8 Beacom’s verdict: In my view Steven has become one of Northern Ireland’s greatest ever footballers. What a player. And a superb captain too.
Oliver Norwood Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 33 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: How this man has grown under Michael O’Neill. Now an outstanding international and so crucial to how the team plays.
Corry Evans Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 33 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Works his socks off for the team no matter where he is asked to play. Could be a key substitute in group games.
Jamie Ward Age: 30 Position: Midfielder Caps: 21 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: With his energy, this livewire often sets the tone early on for Northern Ireland. Underestimate him at your peril.
Stuart Dallas Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 13 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Like a few in this squad has flourished under the manager. Seems inspired every time he puts on a Northern Ireland shirt.
Niall McGinn Age: 28 Position: Midfielder Caps: 42 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Showed against Belarus he can make a big impact off the bench. That will be his important role at the Euros.
Shane Ferguson Age: 24 Position: Midfielder Caps: 24 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Has a lovely left foot and an ability to whip in dangerous crosses. Like a few here will be useful off the bench.
Will Grigg Age: 24 Position: Forward Caps: 8 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Forget the song for a second, if given the chance this guy can be a hit at Euro 2016 because he is a clinical finisher.
Kyle Lafferty Age: 28 Position: Forward Caps: 50 Goals: 17 Beacom’s verdict: Northern Ireland’s main man in attack. Inspirational and influential, Kyle has what it takes to be a star in France.
Conor Washington Age: 24 Position: Forward Caps: 3 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Sure to get game time at the finals, he could be a surprise element for the team. Certainly won’t be overawed.
Michael O’Neill Age: 46 Position: Manager Verdict: Michael is the manager with the Midas touch. It will take something special for Northern Ireland to make the knockout stages, but with this man in charge anything is possible.

Around 20 minutes later, the news from the dressing room was that Lafferty felt fine.

Relief all round, but surely too early to confirm that the man who scored seven goals during the successful qualifying campaign - which saw Northern Ireland top their group after coming in as fifth seeds - was going to be fit and well to take on Poland in Sunday's opening Euro 2016 clash in Nice.

This was drama O'Neill could have done without.

But addressing the press after the training session was over, the Northern Ireland manager revealed that the Norwich City striker was fine and dandy after all.

"He's fine, it's precautionary. We have no major concerns there," said O'Neill.

"It was a little twist (of the groin) but on examination we don't expect any issues at all. We're being careful.

"He just twisted it a little bit as he slid.

"The pitch is hard and you're always liable for these little situations to happen in training.

"He seems alright. He's probably a little bit scared to get in the ice bath but he's there every day. He's fine. All good."

And with that, O'Neill made his exit as Lafferty climbed into the ice bath in the distance.

Prayers had been answered, though it will be interesting to see if there is any reaction to the injury and if the former Rangers front man will take part in training today.

The incident with Lafferty also shows just how thin the line can be between a footballer living out his dream and playing in his country's first major tournament for 30 years and experiencing a nightmare and missing out altogether through sheer ill fortune.

Lafferty is one of Northern Ireland's key performers at Euro 2016.

The manager, players and fans know that the team needs him out there against Poland.

The incident was still the talk of the media centre when the press conferences began later on.

When asked about Lafferty, fellow forward Washington played the moment down, insisting that for players it was run of the mill stuff.

"There are obviously going to be scares when people go down in training but we are told he's going to be fine and it was just a precaution," said Washington.

"It was another good day's training for us. It didn't affect the session.

"As a professional footballer you see that day in and day out.

"Him coming out was perfectly understandable.

"You don't want to take risks ahead of a massive tournament like this."

Asked if it was more serious than people thought, would he be ready if he had to step up and replace Lafferty, Washington's reply was: "I'm definitely 100 per cent ready to go."

Northern Ireland supporters will hope Lafferty is the same.

Belfast Telegraph

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