Northern Ireland hero Kyle Lafferty: Bring on England at Euro 2016
Kyle Lafferty was just a few days short of turning 18 when Northern Ireland triumphed over England at Windsor Park in 2005.
He was an aspiring striker at Burnley and watched the game on television with his fellow Turf Moor apprentices.
In the same English town, just a few miles down the road, a wide-eyed 14 year-old cheered loudly in his family home, with mum and dad either side of him, as David Healy scored the winner.
Oliver Norwood was soon set to play for England schoolboys, yet with his grandparents from Belfast, he already felt an affiliation to Northern Ireland.
Both young men watched in awe — desperately wanting to experience the jubilation and euphoria that followed victory and gripped Windsor Park that September night.
Ten years on, and they may just get their chance.
Lafferty and Norwood are key components in Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland team set to take their place in the Euro finals in France next year.
Kesh born Lafferty was Northern Ireland’s goalscoring hero during the qualifiers, while midfielder Norwood, having switched allegiance in 2009, played the most minutes for the men in green during what proved to be a hugely successful campaign.
Now with the finals draw just six days away in Paris, both Lafferty and Norwood are dreaming of playing England in France next summer.
“We wouldn’t fear playing England,” says Lafferty. “It would be great if we drew them as our top seeds. Think of all the hype that would surround that match. We would have nothing to lose going into that game — all the pressure would be on them.
“I know they won all 10 games in qualifying but I honestly don’t believe they are as good a team as the one Northern Ireland beat in 2005. That team contained the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. They were a top, top side. But we beat them back then and I would love to be in a Northern Ireland side that beat them again in the finals. It would be magical.”
Norwood played alongside Jack Wilshere in an England schoolboys team and could come up against the Arsenal midfielder in France.
“I haven’t seen him since those days,” concedes Norwood. “But I’d certainly welcome playing him again.
“A game against England would be amazing and to be honest I think we can take any side on the way we played during the qualifiers.
“We always seem to do well against the bigger nations and I see no reason, due to our excellent form, why that can’t continue in the finals,” continues Norwood.
Just reaching the finals, the first time Northern Ireland have achieved such a feat in their history, is considered an incredible achievement.
Northern Ireland will be placed in the bottom pot, Pot Four, next Saturday night in Paris’ Palais des Congrès and on the current UEFA co-efficent rankings, O’Neill’s men would be considered the weakest team in the competition.
However having topped qualifying Group F ahead of Romania, Hungary and Greece, both Lafferty and Norwood are certainly not settling for playing three group games in next year’s tournament.
Two teams will automatically qualify from a four team group along with four third placed finishers.
“I hope they do underestimate us,” states Lafferty, who still remains out of favour at Norwich City and will be hoping to secure a January loan or permanent deal to Leeds United in next month’s transfer window.
“We’re not going to France for a holiday. We can shock teams out there. We’ve proven that during qualifying.
“We’ll be taking a lot of fans with us and we’ll be doing all we can to give them the biggest summer party possible and we will not settle for the group stage.”
Norwood concurs saying: “They’re one-off games in the group and by the looks of it we need just one win and a draw to get through one of those groups.
“Until we see the actual draw, we can’t predict anything really, but given Michael and the squad he’s got, nobody gave us hope to qualify so why not?
“Why can’t we go there and put our mark on the tournament?”
Lafferty’s chief understudy and good pal Josh Magennis has already stated he wants hosts France as top seeds in the group.
But equally Northern Ireland could draw Germany, who are in their 2018 World Cup qualifying group, Portugal, Spain or Belgium.
Boss O’Neill, having been busy on a reconnaissance mission in France recently to find a suitable base to use during the tournament, is in no mood to make any predictions. He would rather wait for the outcome of the draw.
O’Neill says: “I know we’ll have to play a really, really outstanding team, then maybe pot two could be kind to you, pot three could be kind to you, you just don’t know.
“The pot thing is very... I don’t pay a lot of attention to it because we were pot five for the qualifiers draw and won the group. It’s very much about the challenge for us and the fact it is now tournament football.
“No matter the opposition, it will be tough, so all we can do is prepare and perform the best we can.”