Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Romania: Euro 2016 qualifying bid hinges on Kyle Lafferty, insists Lomas

By Stuart McKinley

Former Northern Ireland captain Steve Lomas has identified Kyle Lafferty as the man who will dictate where the Green and White Army spend next summer.

At present they are preparing an invasion of France for the Euro 2016 finals and Lomas believes that as long as the 27-year-old is on the pitch, they have every chance of undertaking that mission - because playing without him is unthinkable.

Lafferty has scored five goals in as many games during the current European Championship qualifying campaign, with only England's much maligned striker Danny Welbeck finding the net more times.

The problem is, Lafferty tops another statistic, as the player who has committed the most fouls - with 16 offences in five matches - and a yellow card in this evening's crunch Group F match against Romania at Windsor Park would rule him out of September's trip to the Faroe Islands.

"If Kyle Lafferty can finally realise what he's got, he can be some player," said Lomas who made his international debut against Romania back in 1994.

"Having him fit and free from suspension is crucial if this team is to have a chance of qualifying because he is the one player that Michael can't replace.

"With no disrespect to the other guys, I believe that we could get by without Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Steven Davis, but there is nobody else who can do what Kyle Lafferty does.

"It's not just his physical presence as a target man that is effective, he also makes good runs in behind defences, which is important in international football."

After winning three in a row at the start of the campaign, Northern Ireland are well placed to reach a first ever European finals after bouncing back from a defeat in Romania by beating Finland in the last game back in March.

And Lomas believes that it's not only the expansion of the finals from 16 teams to 24 that has put Michael O'Neill's men in with a big chance of making history.

"I think it's been unfair of some people to say that Northern Ireland only have a chance of qualifying now because there are more teams in the finals," said Lomas.

"Yes you need a bit of luck along the way and the draw has been kind to us, but it's not easy to beat teams like Hungary and Greece away from home.

"Greece might be in a bit of a transitional period, but I don't care.

"That was a great win and even though the top two qualify and the third place team gets a play-off, if we can beat Romania I'd be looking to win the group.

"It's changed times from back in the day when we'd Germany and Portugal in the same group, but it's a great opportunity."

Twenty-one years on, Lomas can still recall his experience against Romania, which didn't turn out the way he planned.

"I was looking forward to playing against Gheorghe Hagi, but then Phil Gray went and brought him down and he was like, 'how dare someone tackle me'," said Lomas.

"He spat at Phil, in the worst spitting incident I ever saw, got sent off and that was that."

Steve Lomas will be in the Sky Sports studio as an analyst on their live coverage of tonight's game on Sky Sports 5 from 7.30pm.

Belfast Telegraph