Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Kyle Lafferty can fire Northern Ireland to glory

Kyle Lafferty celebrates his goal against Finland last month and now Northern Ireland needs more of the same during the World Cup qualifying campaign

Showing speed and strength he darted in front of his marker and then cleverly turned the right wing cross into the net from close range. This was the Kyle Lafferty that every Northern Ireland fan wanted to see.

This was the Kyle Lafferty that offers hope to manager Michael O'Neill ahead of what promises to be a testing World Cup qualifying campaign.

This was the Kyle Lafferty a month ago in front of the Kop at Windsor Park scoring against Finland in a friendly (pictured).

On Friday in Moscow against Fabio Capello's Russia, O'Neill and the Northern Ireland supporters will be praying that they witness more of the same.

The problem is you never know what you are going to get from the Fermanagh native who is now playing his club football with Swiss side Sion after leaving behind the financial shambles that was Rangers.

O'Neill knows that in the World Cup games, his key players like Roy Carroll, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Steve Davis and Chris Brunt must deliver to make an impact.

But more than anyone if Lafferty is inspired, then Northern Ireland might just have some fun in Group F, which not only contains a Russian side desperate to play in the 2014 World Cup before they host it four years later, but also Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo, Israel and Azerbaijan with Luxembourg making up the numbers.

At his best for Northern Ireland, Lafferty has proved unplayable, but those types of outstanding forward displays have been few and far between since he made his international bow in 2006 as a kid at Burnley.

Maybe it was because with crowd favourite and record goalscorer David Healy around, no matter what Lafferty did he was never going to be the main man. Or perhaps it was because he lacked the focus to be a high class consistent performer.

The ‘dream' move to Rangers in 2008 was supposed to take Lafferty to a different level, but too often he got involved in silly scrapes with pundits, other players and even Celtic boss Neil Lennon. Rather that help his international career, the switch to Ibrox seemed to hinder it.

Picking up needless suspensions (he's had 10 yellow cards for Northern Ireland) and unfortunate injuries added to the frustration amongst the Green and White Army about the striker, who displayed such promise when terrorising Swedish and Polish defences on their own patch in his early days.

Lafferty is no longer a kid. He's now got a kid, is married to former Miss Scotland Nicola Mimnagh and has left the craziness of Glasgow for a quieter life in Switzerland.

He appears more settled and has scored already for his new club, adding to that goal against Finland last month.

On Friday he will lead the line in Russia. No easy task, but in this campaign Lafferty must step up and become the figurehead of the national team.

With Healy not selected by O'Neill due to a lack of matches following his move to Bury, Lafferty, from Kesh, must take on the mantle of talisman.

He will play on his own up front and will essentially be the out ball for the defence and midfield sure to be under severe pressure.

Lafferty will have to hold it up and buy his team-mates time and create all the havoc he can for the home back line. If a chance comes his way, the former Ibrox ace must take it.

When scoring against Finland he outlined that he retains an eye for goal. Some thought he had lost it at international level with his previous effort coming in October 2010!

You may not believe it but when Lafferty struck at Winsdor in August, it was his ninth goal for Northern Ireland — the same as George Best achieved.

Bestie scored nine in 37 appearances, Lafferty now has nine in 31, and he has only started 23 of them and has been substituted 19 times.

Had Healy, who has netted 35 times for his country, not been born, we would all be talking about how the Fermanagh man was closing in on our international scoring record of 13 held by Colin Clarke and Billy Gillespie.

Come the end of this campaign, if Kyle has not passed that mark he, the fans and O'Neill should be disappointed.

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