Veteran winger Keith Gillespie last night led the plaudits to hitman Kyle Lafferty, who’s stunning international comeback on Saturday night has given Northern Ireland fans every right to feel optimistic — despite defeat in Maribor.
Rangers star Lafferty returned to international action after two months of injury hell and produced his finest performance in a green shirt.
The recently turned 21-year-old did not show any signs of ring rust and was by far Northern Ireland’s most dangerous and effective player, torturising the Slovenian defence with his movement in their box and powerful runs forward.
He was unfortunate on two occasions not to give Northern Ireland the lead.
In the first half he spun and shot from 12 yards just past the Slovenian upright after a a great cross from Gareth McAuley.
Shortly after the hour mark he latched onto indecision in the Slovenian defence, ran clear of his marker but the keeper was equal to his shot.
“Kyle played really well and he was very unfortunate when he was through on goal,” admitted Gillespie.
“If that had gone in it would have been a different game. But it's just one of those things.”
Manager Nigel Worthington only had words of his praise saying: “Kyle was outstanding and really unsettled them. He got in behind the Slovenians and they didn’t like his presence”
Lafferty’s strike partner David Healy commented: “Big Kyle was a positive. He's been out for a while but he’s come back and looked sharp.”
Gillespie, at the age of 33, realises that he will probably not have another opportunity of reaching the major finals if Northern Ireland fail to make it to South Africa in 2010.
So Saturday’s 2-0 defeat in Maribor was a bitter pill for Gillespie to swallow but the former Manchester United and Newcastle United star is refusing to throw in the towel and insists Northern Ireland will get their campaign back on track.
“We'll have to bounce back on Wednesday — there are positives to be taken from the game in Slovenia,” says Gillespie.
“We've played three games and Maik Taylor hasn't had a save to make and we've got one point so that's the disappointing thing.
“But there is still talent in the squad. We have got some good players and we are working well as a unit.
“This is a group where everybody is going to beat everybody so we still have to believe we have a chance — just look at Poland beating the Czechs.
“We've got the San Marino games home and away coming up so we need to be taking six points there.
“We're still there and we're still fighting.”