Northern Ireland hero Kyle Lafferty is relishing Euro 2016 challenge
Kyle Lafferty believes being drawn in the toughest group in Euro 2016 will allow Northern Ireland to send out a statement of intent to the world.
Kesh-born Lafferty, who scored seven goals during qualifying to help Northern Ireland reach their first ever European finals, was initially gobsmacked by the draw last night in Paris.
He felt the air sucked out of him as Northern Ireland were first drawn in Pot C with Germany and then this was soon followed by Poland and finally Ukraine.
But as the realisation set in that he will be taking on the World champions in Paris along with Poland in Nice and Ukraine in Lyon, frustration and apprehension was suddenly replaced by excitement.
Lafferty, out of favour at Norwich but now likely set for Leeds United in January after being told by Canaries boss Alex Neill he can leave the club in next month’s transfer window, says Northern Ireland can be a force in France.
The 28 year-old says: “It’s not the group we would have wanted, it’s incredibly tough and it could have been easier, but there’s no point dwelling on it. We need to be excited. We have qualified for a major finals in style and I think other teams won’t like playing us.
“If we were able to get a couple of decent results, maybe get a win and a draw that should be enough to send us through to the knock-out stages.
“That would be amazing for a country like Northern Ireland — it would send a message out to the world that we are a real force and shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Lafferty excellent during qualifying — not only scoring goals but his link up play with the likes of Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas was superb. He was real threat whenever he dropped the shoulder and ran at the defences of Hungary, Greece and Romania or made space for himself in the box.
Now he must take his game to a new level for the finals especially if he comes up against German defenders Mat Humels, Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boeteng.
The Poles will be big and strong while Ukraine are an unknown quantity, but expected to be extremely physical.
“We wanted to play against the very best in Europe and we’ve got that with this draw,” admits Lafferty.
“I’ll relish playing against Germany — I can’t wait now.
“This is an opportunity of a lieftime for me.
“It will only push me on to improve my own game because I know I’ll need to be at my ultimate to take on the German defenders.
“However, come June we’ll need to stand up and I think we can do that. Our team spirit is excellent — never been higher and we are all totally committed to making sure Northern Ireland do well.
“Michael will be meticulous in his planning for the finals. Look at what he did during qualifying and how the boys were prepared. I can guarantee Michael will have us fully briefed and his gameplans will be perfect.”
Lafferty’s international team-mate Stuart Dallas (inset) was “gutted” after watching the draw, but he argues Northern Ireland can make a good start against Poland and take something from Ukraine that may mean they’ve already done enough before they play Germany in the final game.
“We going to need to get off to a good start when we play Poland in the first game,” said Dallas.
“It’s a really hard group — we would have wanted to avoid Germany and Poland. But on our day I think we are really hard to beat. We proved that during the qualifiers. We’ll certainly be disappointed if we don’t come away with a positive result against Ukraine.”