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Kyle Lafferty's transition from clown prince to king

By Graham Luney

Bang, bang. The whole picture changed in just five minutes at Windsor Park - all thanks to the 'clown' in Northern Ireland's travelling circus.

Kyle 'the joker' Lafferty may be unpredictable and the source of many managerial headaches but when he's at his explosive best, Northern Ireland can dream big.

Jamie Ward knows his strike partner can be high maintenance at times but his behaviour away from the heat of battle is soon forgotten when he's producing fireworks on the pitch.

The Fermanagh man lit up Northern Ireland's 600th international fixture with a double blast against Finland which has left Michael O'Neill's side on 12 points from a possible 15 and marching towards the Euro 2016 finals in France next summer.

Northern Ireland need a fit and firing Lafferty to achieve anything of significance on the international stage and his five goals from five qualifiers goes a long way to erasing the painful memories of his needless dismissal against Portugal in September 2013.

A fuming O'Neill said then: "I feel he let the players down. We talk about reliability. We do not have that many players and the ones who come, we need them to be reliable and to do what you ask them to do."

Fast forward to Sunday and Lafferty's goals in the 33rd and 38th minutes offered further evidence that the 27-year-old is ready to allow his undoubted quality to shine by displaying greater maturity in the heat of battle.

"What can you say about Kyle, he's a clown!" joked Derby County ace Ward.

"What he is doing is working hard. I don't care if he's an idiot on the training ground.

"As long as he performs on the pitch we'll have a chance of winning games.

"He's a confident boy and now he knows he's coming in to play games and he knows he'll get a rocket if he doesn't do it.

"It's great to see him perform the way we know he can.

"Our partnership is getting better and better with each game and everyone can see Kyle's quality and maybe he'll get another move in the summer.

"I maybe should have scored. It's disappointing but you look at the bigger picture which is the result for the team and Kyle's goals."

The Norwich City hitman, on loan at Turkish side Caykur Rizespor, kept the media waiting after the Group F battle but if he keeps performing like that he can do what he wants.

Supporters may have been walking on air as they left Windsor after the 2-1 victory but Northern Ireland players who did stop to address the media reassured everyone their feet were firmly planted on the ground.

It was refreshing to hear as if the hype goes to their heads they will develop feet of clay.

Ward added: "You can't start getting carried away until you are there. I've found out in club football that you get to the top of the league and things can take a downward turn. We don't want to fall into that trap.

"Obviously every victory brings you one step closer to qualification but the results won't come without performances and you have to stay focused."

There have been many dark days since the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico but Northern Ireland are finally seeing the light again.

"To qualify for a major championship would be special. The fans can get excited," added Ward.

"I'll always give my best for club and Northern Ireland and hopefully we can reward the fans.

"It was a bit nervy towards the end of the game but we achieved our goal and we go into every game trying to win.

"It will be the same mentality playing against Romania in June."

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