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Lafferty can deliver World Cup delight for Northern Ireland says Gillespie

 

By Steven Beacom

Kyle Lafferty is the man to step up and hit the target for Michael O'Neill against Azerbaijan next month in Conor Washington's absence, according to Northern Ireland great Keith Gillespie.

QPR forward Washington is out of the crunch World Cup qualifier on June 10 as he is getting married around that time. It presents a major problem for manager O'Neill because Washington, who scored in the 2-0 home win over Norway in March, would have started the Group C clash.

Gillespie believes Lafferty, looking for a new club after leaving Norwich City, can provide the perfect solution despite his lack of game time this year.

The ex-Manchester United and Newcastle winger, who won 86 caps, points to the fact that Lafferty is inspired when he puts on the green shirt and expects a similar response this time around.

"Kyle turns into a different person when he plays for Northern Ireland and with Conor being out of the Azerbaijan game, I'm sure Kyle can step up and deliver for the team," said Gillespie, who, along with Banbridge businessman and former Irish League player Brian Adair, launched new football agency OneTwo yesterday.

"If Kyle can go out and give 60 to 70 minutes of what we know he can do, that's a huge bonus to us. He hasn't always been Michael's first choice in this qualifying campaign but he is still our top goalscorer in the World Cup which says a lot. He will always score goals for Northern Ireland."

O'Neill's men enter the Azerbaijan fixture aiming to cement their second place position in the group which would earn them a play-off later this year.

Liam Boyce has been scoring goals for fun at Ross County this season and many believe this will be his chance to shine.

Gillespie rates the ex-Cliftonville ace, yet feels that Lafferty's international record may be the difference for O'Neill when weighing up his starting XI.

He adds that Lafferty, who has scored 20 international goals, reminds him of Northern Ireland's record scorer David Healy (36 goals) in how they approach playing for their country.

"Liam Boyce has been phenomenal this season. He will get his chance at some stage, whether it is in Azerbaijan remains to be seen," said Gillespie.

"For me, Kyle thrives on putting on a Northern Ireland shirt and he reminds me of David Healy in that regard. For example, when David moved to Fulham he didn't get much game time, but still scored goals left, right and centre for Northern Ireland and Kyle does the same.

"They are obviously different people but it shows what it means for them to play for Northern Ireland and when they pull on that jersey they want to prove people wrong back at their clubs.

"It was difficult for David scoring all those international goals and then returning to his club and not playing. It's similar for Kyle but if he is fit and ready I'm sure he can perform for Northern Ireland in Azerbaijan and for the rest of the campaign."

Gillespie acknowledges it is important going forward that 29-year-old Lafferty, who recently spoke of a desire to return to Rangers, makes the right move from Norwich and starts to play on a more regular basis after a frustrating and largely inactive season at Carrow Road.

"He is at that age now where this could be the biggest move he ever makes," said Gillespie.

"This might be his last deal, or his second last deal, in football. Kyle needs to be playing regularly next season. He is a confidence player and probably needs a manager who puts his arm around him and lifts him when needed.

"In the last qualifying campaign he was our number one striker and I believe, even when all the forwards are available, he can get back to that."

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