Belfast Telegraph

If Kyle Lafferty delivers, Northern Ireland can have can have last Laff

Norwich striker is central to our chances of reaching the Euro Championships: Shaw

By Steven Beacom

Irish FA President Jim Shaw believes that striker Kyle Lafferty will be 'critical' to Northern Ireland's hopes of qualifying for the 2016 European Championship finals.

And he insists that the upcoming Group F games, starting away to Hungary on Sunday, represent a 'massive campaign' not just for manager Michael O'Neill and his players, but also the IFA itself.

Shaw is a sensible character. His thoughtful assessments on the national team have been worth listening to for years.

Approaching Northern Ireland's latest quest to reach the finals of a major tournament – it's 28 years and counting since the last one – that hasn't changed.

A group containing Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands may suggest that there is nothing to fear. Shaw knows all too well though that in such situations we have been burnt before.

While there may be great expectations amongst the fans ahead of Sunday's big kick-off, the IFA President is not slow to dish out a plate of realism, remembering that O'Neill's team finished a disappointing fifth place in their World Cup table, suffering humiliating defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the process.

"There is a lot of expectation from Northern Ireland supporters regarding this campaign about our chances of finishing in the top two in the group and automatically qualifying," says Shaw.

"Those expectations certainly aren't based on our performances and results in the last campaign.

"That said I think we should always have hope. Being a realist my expectation is perhaps not that we will finish in the top two, rather that we can have a real go at finishing third.

"If we do that to guarantee at least a play-off place that would be a successful campaign.

"The Fifa rankings may not be valued by everyone but they offer a guide as to how countries have been performing and three of the teams in our group are significantly ranked above us, including Hungary who we will play first.

"We are 95th and they are 34th so when we come to play them and others above us we have to close that gap.

"The start of any campaign is always important but I think it is especially vital to us this time because three of our first four games are away from home.

"If we don't win any points from those games we are going to make it really difficult for ourselves."

A key figure according to Shaw will be new Norwich striker Lafferty, back in the UK after spells in Switzerland and Italy, and back in the international squad after an act of stupidity against Portugal that led to a red card and suspension.

Lafferty only played four times in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, much to the frustration of O'Neill and the fans. Shaw wants to see more from the ex-Rangers ace this time in every sense.

"Obviously all the players are important, but one who I believe is absolutely critical to our chances is Kyle Lafferty," said the IFA's figurehead.

"We haven't any other forward like him who can do what he is capable of doing. When he is on his game he holds the ball up well, offers a goal threat and can be a real headache for defenders.

"At his best he is also a big help to the player playing just behind him.

"Kyle's performance in the World Cup campaign during the 1-1 draw in Portugal was a great example of what he can give the team. That was one of only four games that he played, however, and I agree with Michael O'Neill that he and our other top players must play in many more games this time.

"I always look at the spine of the team and when all our best players are available for those positions, we are pretty strong, from goalkeeper Roy Carroll, playing again in Britain with Notts County, in central defence we have people like Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans, who unfortunately is suspended for the Hungary game, in midfield there is Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood and in attack Kyle.

"Aside from that, Chris Brunt has the ability to play a key role. I'd love to see him have a good tournament."

After the failure of the last campaign, the Euro qualifiers are set to define O'Neill's international managerial reign, but Shaw says what lies ahead is not just crucial for the boss.

"It is a massive campaign for the manager, for the players and for the Irish FA because we need to revitalise our support," says Shaw.

"It has been a long time since the days of 2005 and 2006 when it was easy to fill Windsor Park because then we were beating England and Spain and just about everyone else who came to Belfast.

"In the last campaign we defeated Russia but one swallow does not make a summer.

"We need to be winning much more to keep our loyal fans happy and to attract new supporters. This really is an important time for us."

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