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Lafferty will fire Northern Ireland to finals... and IFA plan to offer hero boss O’Neill a new deal

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Striking success: Kyle Lafferty seals historic 2-0 win over Greece in Athens

Striking success: Kyle Lafferty seals historic 2-0 win over Greece in Athens

PA

Striking success: Kyle Lafferty seals historic 2-0 win over Greece in Athens

Kyle Lafferty is the man to fire Northern Ireland to the European Championship 2016 finals, his team-mates insist.

That’s exactly what the Green and White Army, already planning to go to France in their thousands, want to hear and the feelgood factor is set to continue with prominent members of the Irish FA weighing up a new contract extension for manager Michael O’Neill, who has turned the country’s fortunes around in such dramatic fashion.

O’Neill’s current deal is not up until the end of the Euro campaign, but so pleased are some of the IFA top dogs with the progress the manager is making that they are considering tying him down on a longer contract.

The outstanding Lafferty, who has scored three goals in Northern Ireland’s three history making wins to open up the Euro 2016 campaign, would welcome that as would captain Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes, who believe the fantastic form of the Norwich striker will be crucial in the bid to qualify for a first major championship since 1986.

Hughes, the most experienced player in O’Neill’s squad and closing in on 100 caps, has been blown away by Lafferty, who struck a superb goal in a 2-0 win in Greece on Tuesday night taking Northern Ireland clear at the top of the Group F table.

“Kyle is coming up against top class international defenders playing for top clubs around Europe and he is tearing them apart,” said Hughes.

“He is showing exactly what he has got. When he is focused and fit, and he puts his mind to it, as he has been in the first three qualifying games, he is a handful for anybody.

“We have to keep him fit because he has become such a big player for us.”

Southampton’s Davis, who in the past played alongside Lafferty at Rangers, added: “Kyle was excellent against Greece. He gives us that outlet and in the first three games he really has been outstanding.

“It’s unbelievable for us but that is the sort of thing we are going to need from him if we are going to be successful.

“It’s been an excellent start for us and I’m sure he will take a lot of confidence from it.

“He really deserves it. He works so hard for the team, even in the past and it’s nice to see him getting his rewards.”

O’Neill too looks set to be rewarded.

The last time Northern Ireland were close to qualification, the then manager Lawrie Sanchez walked out to take over at Fulham and the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign fell apart under his replacement Nigel Worthington.

There is no suggestion that O’Neill would leave Northern Ireland in the lurch if a club came calling, but the IFA are still keen to keep him on a long term basis to build on his fine work.

Should O’Neill take Northern Ireland to the Euro finals, it won’t just be the IFA who will want him. The 45-year-old from Ballymena will become a target for several clubs in England and Scotland and perhaps further afield.

"It was a dream night," said keeper Roy Carroll, who was returning to his former home stadium having spent three seasons with Olympiacos prior to joining Notts County.

"First of all, it's nice to come back to Greece and get a performance like that. I love this place - I lived here for three years and I had a really good time. We got the three points and everyone is delighted with that.

"Everyone can dream of qualifying. If we get a good result in Romania next month, you never know. But it's still too early to talk about that at the moment."

 

Six stunning away days to remember

Czechoslovakia 1 Northern Ireland 2

In 1958 Northern Ireland made their first appearance at the World Cup Finals. Against all the odds, a brave side captained by Danny Blanchflower reached the quarter-finals in Sweden after beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the play-off. Czech outside left Zednek Zikan scored with a 17th minute header in Malmo but two Peter McParland goals sealed the sensational win.

Spain 0 Northern Ireland 1

In June 1982 came another World Cup fairytale... 'One Night in Valencia'. Little Northern Ireland won 1-0 against the mighty Spain in the World Cup Finals - and in their own back yard to boot! Gerry Armstrong's 47th minute goal - when he pounced on the rebound after keeper Arconada had parried Billy Hamilton's cross - remains our sweetest moment.

West Germany 0 Northern Ireland 1

In November 1983, Northern Ireland served up a double helping of agony for West Germany. With the memory of Ian Stewart's winner at Windsor Park fresh in everyone's minds, Billy Bingham's men repeated the trick in Hamburg, winning 1-0 in a European Championship qualifier when Norman Whiteside drilled a left-foot shot into the back of the net in the 50th minute.

romania 0 Northern Ireland 1

In October 1985, Jimmy Quinn scored against Romania with 28 minutes on the clock and the hosts failed to reply. It was a crucial win for Billy Bingham's side en route to the 1986 World Cup Finals. Not even the great Romania skipper Gheorghe Hagi could find a way past big Pat Jennings. Quinn's low finish did the damage after some impressive approach play from Sammy McIlroy.

England 0 Northern Ireland 0

In November 1985, Northern Ireland needed a point at Wembley against England to qualify for the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico and Billy Bingham's battlers achieved their goal. Pat Jennings was in imperious form between the sticks and the match also evokes memories of the late Alan McDonald rejecting suggestions of 'a fix' in an unforgettable post-match interview.

Germany 1 Northern Ireland 1

In November, 1996, Tommy Wright produced his finest performance in the Northern Ireland number one jersey in Nuremberg, inspiring the side to a 1-1 draw against Germany. The reigning European champions struggled to find a way past the Ballyclare man who hadn't played an international in over two years. Gerry Taggart scored though Andreas Möller levelled matters.

Belfast Telegraph