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Comment: Kyle Lafferty's Rangers move has left Northern Ireland striker vulnerable

By Paul Ferguson in the Sunday Life

During a colourful career, Kyle Lafferty has probably made as many apologies as he has scored goals.

Okay, that may be an exaggeration.

He hasn’t scored that many goals.

But the premise remains.

The class clown is often a little bit silly, makes a rash error of judgment and after his ills are pointed out to him, he subsequently retracts and says, ‘Sorry’.

So his apology this week to Rangers boss Steven Gerrard, following the Irish FA triggering FIFA’s five-day ruling which means he is excluded from the Light Blues’ clash with Hamilton today after his ‘no show’ for Northern Ireland’s recent Nations Cup clashes, is therefore not the first and will certainly not be the last to cross his lips before the 31-year-old calls time on his career.

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He’ll need to reiterate the word ‘sorry’ to an infuriated international chief Michael O’Neill, whom Lafferty is expected to have a face-to-face showdown with imminently to discuss his international future.

But O’Neill knows only too well about his football-related indiscretions.

In 2013, Lafferty was lambasted by O’Neill after he came on as a second-half substitute against Portugal and received a straight red card for a crude challenge on Joao Pereira while just last year, he enraged his international manager and some of his team-mates by failing to return on the team bus to their base following the first leg of the World Cup play-off against Switzerland at Windsor Park and then, ahead of the second leg in Basel, he turned up late to a team meeting.

When he was poised to leave his first club Burnley for the glamour of Rangers, just prior to his 21st birthday, the move appeared to be stalling so he attempted to drive the deal through the media — much to the chagrin of then Clarets boss Owen Coyle.

During his first stint at Ibrox, he was fined for an act of simulation which resulted in Aberdeen’s Charlie Mulgrew being dismissed, had a rather unsavoury dispute with former Celtic chief Neil Lennon, was constantly falling foul of the club’s coaches for his hijinks and was actually banned from the team’s training facilities at Murray Park for two weeks due to a bust-up with then manager Ally McCoist.

With Northern Ireland, under boss Nigel Worthington, he was no longer allowed to share a room with a team-mate on international duty due to breaches of discipline and was forced to stay in the room next to the manager.

At Palermo, despite being named the Fans’ Player of the Year as the club secured a passage to Serie A, his off the field behaviour angered the President so much that he refused to offer Lafferty a new contract and controversy has followed him wherever he has been.

But those who know him best would ascertain he’s not a bad lad, just a bit misguided and lacking in the foundations of discipline.

Ultimately, there’s no malice in his actions and with the ability he has, the lad from Kesh can change the course of a game with his attacking attributes, score important goals for club and country and this is why he has been given numerous chances.

The 31-year-old has a second opportunity at Rangers having revitalised his club career at Hearts with 20 goals last season while on the international front, despite his snub, there is a serious likelihood of him being back in O’Neill’s squad for the friendly against the Republic next month and final Nations League match against Austria three days later.

Of course, he’s had serious issues to deal with including his public admission to a gambling habit but the manner in which he dealt with such an addiction and the support he has received from wife Vanessa, along with the welcome addition of their first child in the summer, pointed to a more content and finally mature Lafferty.

At Hearts, he had the guidance of Austin MacPhee, the club’s assistant and O’Neill’s right hand man, to keep him fully focused on his professional duties and Lafferty has admitted that during his time at Tynecastle he used him as a confidant.

During the Euro 2016 qualifiers when Lafferty was banging in seven goals to help Northern Ireland reach their first ever European Championship finals, O’Neill and his striker had a special relationship with the boss offering him the encouragement he needed, making him feel the most important player on the team and selecting him when frozen out at Norwich. In return, Lafferty admitted he felt as though he wanted to run through a brick wall for O’Neill.

That type of relationship, though, is long over. Trust and loyalty are hugely important for O’Neill and he feels badly let down by a player he invested so much in.

Lafferty’s move to Rangers, while on the surface is a dream return for the striker, leaves him exposed and vulnerable, prone to making mistakes. Just six weeks have passed since he left Hearts and already he has his tail between his legs.

O’Neill, in an attempt to gain back control and assert his authority, has bared his teeth with the Irish FA invoking the five-day rule on Lafferty — hitting the striker where it hurts most by ruling him out of a game with his beloved Rangers, as he attempts to secure a regular place in the side, and then the humiliation of being forced to make the long walk to the headmaster’s office to apologise to Gerrard.

It’s unclear how Lafferty will react in terms of international football as he has remained silent on the issue. Will he accept it on the chin or throw the toys out of the pram and refuse to play again for O’Neill?

With such a small pool of players to choose from and the fact Northern Ireland have just returned goal-shy from Austria and Bosnia, O’Neill needs to have the option of Lafferty, 68 appearances and 20 goals, in his squad.

On his day, Lafferty is still Northern Ireland’s best forward. However, having not scored an international goal since November 2016, it’s been a long time since Lafferty was in top form for his country.

Lafferty, for his unprofessional antics, has a great deal of making up to do with O’Neill, his team-mates and the fans.

But if he were to score the winner against the Republic in the big derby in Dublin on November 15, then it’s likely all would be forgiven.

Until the next time...

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