Belfast Telegraph

Kyle Lafferty may well have run out of Northern Ireland chances as Michael O'Neill has run out of patience

 

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill hates to be distracted from his focus on match week. The Northern Ireland manager is methodical in his approach.

Plans have been put in place for weeks in terms of travel, training, nutrition and game night.

O'Neill prides himself in being in full control of proceedings and deviation is usually only permitted on his say.

It's a process which he has perfected over the years and with the players and his backroom staff buying into his methods, great success has come Northern Ireland's way, especially during the last four years.

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Therefore, Kyle Lafferty's self-imposed absence, a surprise rather than a bolt from the blue, is a major distraction he could have done without. And frustratingly for O'Neill, completely outside his control.

Already missing Jamie Ward, who returned to his club Charlton Athletic to work on his fitness, and Conor Washington, due to personal reasons, O'Neill could have been doing with Lafferty's experience and expertise up front as he is down to three strikers - Josh Magennis, Will Grigg and Liam Boyce - with international caps and new boy Kyle Vassell for tomorrow night's Nations League clash with Austria at the Ernst Happel Stadium.

Indeed, Lafferty has more caps, 68, than Magennis, Grigg and Boyce combined.

Lafferty, who started against Bosnia and Herzegovina, would have been battling with Bolton's Magennis for the lone striker's role in Vienna.

On his day, Lafferty, as proven during the Euro 2016 qualifiers with his seven goals, is Northern Ireland's best hitman.

But he hasn't been in that type of form in a green shirt for some time and his last goal for Northern Ireland came nearly two years ago in a big win over Azerbaijan.

After leaving O'Neill in the lurch this week, and going by the manager's terse statement late on Tuesday evening, the 31-year-old may have played his last game under the former Newcastle United midfielder.

With O'Neill having signed a long-term contract, Lafferty's international career could finish with 68 appearances and 20 goals.

Lafferty may like to play the practical joker of the Northern Ireland team, but O'Neill certainly doesn't want to be taken for a fool.

He tolerated Lafferty's wise cracks, bubbly personality and also put an arm round him when confidence was low after being frozen out at Norwich City. O'Neill was getting something in return - goals and, in truth, forward options were limited. Lafferty was also a lot younger - he is 31 now.

After being sent off against Portugal in 2013, O'Neill publicly admonished Lafferty, something he has rarely done with players. However, over time, O'Neill's anger subsided and he was welcomed back into the fold.

Last November, Lafferty was banished to the bench for the second leg of the World Cup play-off against Switzerland after failing to get the team bus back to their base at the Culloden hotel following the Windsor Park game and then was subsequently late to a team meeting. O'Neill would have excluded him from his match day squad but he'd already notified Fifa of his final 18.

Some of the players, feeling Lafferty had crossed a line, were fully behind their manager's decision.

He of course was soon back into the squad after a great goalscoring season with Hearts and having admitted to his gambling addiction he was receiving excellent support from O'Neill's No.2 Austin MacPhee and responding brilliantly on the pitch.

But then the return to Rangers occurred, a huge deal for Lafferty, and deep down O'Neill knew this could spell trouble for Northern Ireland. Lafferty's head is easily turned, is away from the comfort blanket of MacPhee and in his previous stint at Ibrox, Lafferty's appearance record in a green shirt wasn't great.

Players of course have withdrawn from end of season friendlies for frivolous reasons but this is a competitive fixture which could also impact Northern Ireland's ranking for the Euro 2020 draw in December.

Lafferty hasn't spoken publicly on the issue and therefore he could have a genuine reason for his absence, similar to Washington, who asked to be excused for 'personal reasons'.

But Sheffield United ace Washington did that a good two weeks before the squad was due to meet up, not on the eve of a training camp in Austria.

If Lafferty is injured, and he's apparently been struggling with an Achilles issue, then let the Northern Ireland medics assess him so they can officially withdraw him from international service.

Northern Ireland need a player of Lafferty's quality in the squad.

But in O'Neill's mind he now may be more trouble than it's worth.

O'Neill has run out of patience and it appears Lafferty has run out of chances.

Belfast Telegraph

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