Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Hungary: Manager's chat that steered Kyle Lafferty to redemption

By Paul Ferguson

One of the darkest hours of Kyle Lafferty's career is the reason why Northern Ireland are within touching distance of the 2016 Euro finals in France.

Lafferty was considered persona non grata by Northern Ireland fans in 2013 following a red card against Portugal in a World Cup qualifying match.

He'd only been on the pitch a matter of minutes, after coming on as a second half substitute, but during that time he lost his man at a corner for Portugal's equalising goal and then saw red for a lunging, late tackle on Joao Pereira. Northern Ireland ended up losing the game 4-2.

Lafferty's international career looked to be in serious jeopardy. Fans were furious, team-mates frustrated and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who had always treated him with respect and as adult, was left feeling let down. But O'Neill was not about to give up on his controversial striker, who at that time, was far from home playing his club football on the Italian island of Sicily with Palermo.

The dismissal prompted an uncomfortable conversation that has saved Lafferty's international career and made him a Northern Ireland hero again along with one of hottest hitmen in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

"The transformation during these qualifiers is down to Michael," said 27-year-old Lafferty, who has scored six goals in seven games during this campaign.

"He sat me down the day after I was sent off against Portugal. It's difficult when you think you've got a good relationship with someone and a guy you respect is saying things that hurt you.

"But when I went away and had a think about it, I knew he was right.

"When I came on against Portugal we were winning the game and in the first 30 seconds I lost my man and it cost us a goal. It doesn't matter who it was, Ronaldo or someone else, I lost my man and then I was sent off after 13 and a half minutes.

"It was difficult and I'm pretty sure every other manager would have lost the plot with me. But he sat me down and talked to me like an adult. The things he said, he actually made me believe the lads need me in the team.

"He made me wake up. Had it not been for the sending off against Portugal I don't know if I would be in this position now, helping the team.

"Obviously I had to grow up sometime. I can't always be the player who loves a joke off the pitch or performs one in every three games.

"The team and the country needs the Kyle Lafferty with the head screwed on, not the clown. And I have matured and I love coming away now. I think this is the first campaign I've been available for every single game and I've started every single game."

Lafferty was brought back into the international fold six months after the red card against Portugal, coming on as a second half substitute against Cyprus in Nicosia. He failed to make an impact.

However a further six months later and Lafferty's redemption had started in earnest with the winning goal and an assist in Northern Ireland's shock opening Euro 2016 qualifying victory over Hungary in Budapest.

Now having scored a further five goals in this campaign to help Northern Ireland sit proudly at the top of Group F on 16 points, one ahead of second placed Romania, Norwich City forward Lafferty will once again face Hungary, this time at Windsor Park and is ready to dedicate qualification to O'Neill if it happens tonight.

"It's no secret that Michael has shown unbelievable belief in me," states Lafferty.

"Josh (Magennis) said the other day in an interview that Michael knows me better than I know myself and it's probably true.

"He knows how to look after me off the pitch and he knows what to say to me.

"If we manage to cross the line against Hungary there won't be another person I am happier for than him."

Belfast Telegraph