Belfast Telegraph

When Kyle Lafferty puts on a Northern Ireland shirt, he turns into Superman

Northern Ireland hero Billy Hamilton hails current striking sensation Kyle

By Steven Beacom

World Cup hero Billy Hamilton has labelled Northern Ireland's current striking star Kyle Lafferty as the country's 'Superman'.

The Windsor Park great is hoping the Fermanagh ace keeps his cape on and performs more heroic deeds in the upcoming Euro 2016 games against the Faroe Islands and Hungary.

If he does Northern Ireland will be flying all the way to next year's finals in France.

It would be a story fit for Hollywood if Lafferty could inspire Northern Ireland to their first major tournament since 1986, when Hamilton was in Billy Bingham's squad at the Mexico World Cup.

After the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, there were question marks against Lafferty's international career, which reached its lowest point when he was sent off against Portugal in a 4-2 defeat in Belfast.

A heart to heart with Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill ahead of the current campaign proved crucial, as did Lafferty's new, improved attitude.

He scored the winner in the opening Group F clash in a 2-1 success in Hungary and has been excelling in the green shirt ever since.

The 27-year-old has come of age as a Northern Ireland player, having scored five goals in the six qualifiers to date, taking his tally at international level to 14. Only record goalscorer David Healy has netted more for the nation.

Hamilton, who scored a few goals for Northern Ireland himself, has loved watching Lafferty's change in fortunes and now sees him as the most influential figure in the team.

"Kyle is like David Healy in that despite his club career not going as he would have liked in recent times, he has still stepped up and delivered for Northern Ireland," said Hamilton, who won 41 caps and played in the 1982 World Cup as well as the 1986 finals.

"Footballers need to feel good about their game and when Kyle turns up for international duty he knows he is the main man and I'm sure that gets his adrenaline going and gives him an ego boost.

"Right now when he puts on a Northern Ireland shirt, he turns into Superman. He has been brilliant in this campaign and hopefully that will continue."

While outstanding in the campaign so far, there is a fear that Lafferty is coming into this month's Euro 2016 double header undercooked.

Having only just returned to training with Norwich City, after a knee injury, the former Rangers ace has yet to play this season.

Whether or not he will have enough in the tank to play away to the Faroes on Friday and then at home to Hungary remains to be seen.

What is certain is that Northern Ireland need him leading the line.

Hamilton is quite right to point out that manager O'Neill is limited in options to replace the Lakeland county native.

He said: "It is concerning of course that Kyle has not played for Norwich all season because obviously his fitness will be an issue and remember this is a double header so Northern Ireland are playing two games in a short space of time.

"I do fear when Kyle is out of the side because there is no one else who looks like being a regular goalscorer.

"I'm pleased to see Liam Boyce included in Michael O'Neill's squad, but he is not a like for like replacement for Kyle. Liam has other qualities.

"The one player I would like to see given a chance if Kyle is unavailable would be Joe Gormley, who moved from Cliftonville to Peterborough in the summer.

"He is playing in full-time football which will improve his all-round game and he offers a goal threat.

"If it is considered a risk to play Kyle in both matches, the one I would definitely play him in would be against the Faroes. The key game for me is the match with the Faroes. Win that and everyone will be really up for the match at home to Hungary."

If results go Northern Ireland's way on Friday evening, with O'Neill's men winning and group leaders Romania beating Hungary in Budapest, Monday's game at Windsor could see celebrations that would eclipse even that of the famous 1-0 victory over England 10 years ago.

Two wins for the visiting teams in those matches would mean a Northern Ireland victory over Hungary would guarantee Euro 2016 qualification with two games left in the campaign.

In the past matches with minnows have proved testing for Northern Ireland. The previous trip to the Faroes, for instance, under Nigel Worthington ended in a 1-1 draw.

Hamilton is convinced that won't happen under O'Neill, who he says reminds him in some ways of the legendary Bingham. High praise indeed.

"I am confident that with the belief and system of playing that Michael O'Neill has instilled into the players that we can make the finals," said 58-year-old Hamilton.

"Michael has made sure all of the players know their jobs and they stick to them which is so important for a Northern Ireland team.

"He reminds me of Billy Bingham in that regard.

"When we were qualifying for World Cups in the 1980s we knew exactly what we had to do.

"When we lost the ball there was always a great willingness to track back and work for the team and I can see that in Michael's side. He has done a fantastic job and now we all want to see him and the players finish it off.

"I know the Faroe Islands game is a potential banana skin, but I don't see us slipping up there which will set up quite an occasion against Hungary at Windsor next Monday."

Belfast Telegraph