Belfast Telegraph

Kyle Lafferty's maturity could take Michael O'Neill's boys to France in 2016

By Steven Beacom

Kyle Lafferty. Twelve months ago I was writing a damning piece about his attitude and antics telling him it was time to grow up. If his mature, match winning performance for Northern Ireland in last night's sensational 2-1 victory over Hungary is anything to go by, maybe the troubled boy has finally become a man.

What is certain is that the big guy from Kesh in Fermanagh was an inspirational figure for Michael O'Neill's side as they started the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign in the best possible fashion.

France, you have two years to prepare yourselves, we're on our way!

Ok ok, let's not get too carried away even though a third placed finish this time around guarantees at least a play-off, but the success in Budapest sets Northern Ireland up for what should be a campaign to remember, unlike the last one.

In the World Cup qualifiers, O'Neill and his players could only manage one victory out of 10 matches and while it was against Fabio Capello's Russia, that still didn't provide nearly enough credit in the bank for everything else that happened.

There were embarrassing draws at home to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

Worse, we had to endure humiliating defeats away from Windsor Park to the same opposition – the 3-2 loss to Luxembourg in my opinion was the lowest a team representing the IFA had ever sunk, and there's been some competition down the years for that dubious honour.

Fifth place in the group was a shocking return for a panel of players, who I've maintained for some time now should be producing better results than in recent years.

After what had gone before, O'Neill and his team owed loyal fans big time approaching the Euro games. Great to see payback has started.

In the new Groupama Arena last night Northern Ireland showed character, self-belief, discipline, kept sloppy mistakes to a minimum and in the end took their chances... qualities sadly lacking since our last competitive away win in Slovenia four years ago... and look at the result.

Same again from now until next October boys and just wait 'til you see what can be achieved. More than ever that message goes out to Lafferty, who having set up substitute Niall McGinn to equalise last night scrambled home the decisive goal on 88 minutes.

It was Lafferty's 10th strike in his 37th international, taking the Norwich City forward ahead of George Best in the scoring stakes. No wonder Kyle was smiling like a Cheshire cat at the finish.

What a contrast to his last cap when he was sent off in disgrace after coming off the bench against Portugal in Belfast, leading to O'Neill labelling the front man 'reckless' following that 4-2 defeat.

His case wasn't helped when Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini called the striker 'an out-of-control womaniser' when he left Italy for Carrow Road.

Up until then the 26-year-old had made 36 international appearances, nine as substitute. Of his 27 starts he was subbed on 19 occasions, meaning he only played the full 90 minutes for Northern Ireland EIGHT times.

He had been booked a remarkable TWELVE times and sent off once, serving FIVE suspensions.

With a record like that, other nations would have washed their hands off him, but O'Neill, given his resources, knew he couldn't afford to do that.

The proof was in the goulash last night with Lafferty leading the line well, causing problems for the Hungarian defence. When he is good, he is very, very good for Northern Ireland and when he is bad he is awful.

The trick for O'Neill will be to ensure that in the remaining nine matches in Group F it is the former and not the latter and that his key player's head is right. On his game Lafferty is strong, quicker than most think with an eye for goal.

The run and cross to set up McGinn's equaliser was electric and the finish, perhaps aided by a defender on the line, for the winner was one of a goal poacher putting the gloss on a fine performance.

He wasn't the only one to shine, but he was the vital one. Without him Northern Ireland would not have won, or possibly even drawn, after going behind to a Tamas Priskin header with 15 minutes left.

Once that went in the good work of the first hour from the players, which should have seen them take the lead through Corry Evans, and the tactical awareness of O'Neill to deny Hungary time and space looked as if it would come to nothing.

But with Evans redeeming himself thanks to a superb clearing header with the home side set to score, the impact of substitute McGinn and Lafferty's heroics, the visitors found a way back into the fixture.

When they put their minds to it Northern Ireland footballers can be heroes like Carl Frampton and Rory McIlroy.

Don't stop now boys. The Faroe Islands are at Windsor next month which should mean three more points and six out of six overall.

Start learning French everybody... in the summer of 2016 we might just need it!

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