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Comment: How Kyle Lafferty can become Ibrox Ibrahimovic and create lasting Rangers legacy

 

By Julian Taylor

Inevitably a man for the widescreen picture and the big occasion, yesterday's inter-city shuttle from Edinburgh to Glasgow finally represented a surprise second coming for Kyle Lafferty.

The fired-up Fermanagh man is once again ready for what he presumably feels is unfinished business at Rangers.

Fortunately for Lafferty, he leaves Hearts to join a club finally on the up, under Steven Gerrard's sheer force of will.

It's in deep contrast to the financially stricken Gers outfit he departed six years ago, when a number of players could only envisage a bleak, immediate future in the lower divisions, with little scope for personal advancement.

Newly appreciative of both fate and circumstance, Lafferty is expected to relish this opportunity.

It goes without saying that if the new Ranger takes flight, there will be obvious benefits for Northern Ireland too.

Over the last year, the 30-year-old has settled on and off the pitch with bright, fresh beginnings in Scotland, fatherhood, and increased personal happiness.

Lafferty has always had a playful, adventurous streak, which partially explains an overall popularity wherever his peculiar, diverse career has bounded him: from Burnley to Rangers initially; FC Sion; Palermo; a brief, bizarre spell at Turkish club Çaykur Rizespor; to Hearts.

Indeed, if the Northern Ireland forward delivers a similar 20-goal tally for new manager Gerrard as he did at Tynecastle, then this inexpensive Ibrox Ibrahimovic will seal the elevated status he desires.

The mutual worth of this move is clear to both player and club. However, while Lafferty's return is fairly risk-averse for Rangers, the player himself is essentially speculating to accumulate. Can he grow wings again in the frenzy of Glasgow?

Financial benefits will obviously have been a factor but, equally, the temptation to remain at a loved-up Edinburgh environment would have been particularly strong.

Nonetheless, risk and edge have always been main features of Lafferty's make up, which explains a somewhat wayward club career.

Now to probably the final chapter, where the dividends of helping Gerrard overhaul Celtic's dominance would be a personal pinnacle.

The Light Blues must hope that adverse off-field publicity - the potential being much higher as an Old Firm player - doesn't stalk Lafferty like it has done previously.

Consequently, while Northern Ireland hope the transfer has positive ramifications, boss Michael O'Neill could be forgiven for thinking all this is potentially hazardous, leaving Hearts, a club that has been incredibly restorative for him.

Unsurprisingly, the lure of Rangers prevailed. Gerrard knows he has a hungry, ready-made Premiership and European operator on his hands who has an intrinsic understanding of the club's demands.

Big, defining moments come with the territory when discussing Erneside enigma Lafferty.

Clinically executed, championship-clinching goals against Hibernian and Kilmarnock in his first Rangers spell.

A sublime finish against Celtic at Tynecastle earlier this month reminds us of the subtleties of Lafferty's game, often overlooked. Then the swoosh of key interventions at international level. Decisive goals against Hungary, Finland and Greece spring to mind.

A partnership with industrious, if raw, Alfredo Morelos can be of real benefit for Gerrard's Ibrox striking plans.

Lafferty's versatility can be useful if, due to circumstance, Rangers opt to play with a solo striker in the manner he is used to with Northern Ireland.

His arrival yesterday was, by Rangers' standards, relatively low-key.

This was likely connected to the crucial Europa League play-off first leg tie against Russians FC Ufa this evening, where the outcome will shape the Light Blues' mood.

Alternatively, it could reflect the general acceptance that, while the Ulsterman is a main signing, Lafferty is simply one of several of this nature across a hectic summer for Gerrard.

This is where things get interesting - and will be a test of the extent to which the idiosyncratic striker has matured.

For all his swagger and presence - grand assets when the big games roll up - Lafferty at times appears to be a sensitive, softly-spoken individual.

He is someone who needs constant reassurance and attention, of the sort enjoyed for many years under bossman O'Neill.

Lafferty had a similar rapport at Tynecastle with Hearts head coach Craig Levein, assistant Austin MacPhee - also involved with Northern Ireland - and chairwoman Ann Budge, all of whom went considerably beyond their duty of care when the player opened up about his gambling problems last term.

A superb goal tally rewarded the Jam Tarts for helping reignite a career going nowhere at Norwich City.

That indicates a loyal streak, and if it had not been for Gerrard and Rangers, Hearts would have continued to reap the rewards.

An 'undisclosed fee' is little consolation for the Edinburgh outfit, who reluctantly facilitated their talisman's departure to Premiership rivals.

As with Northern Ireland, there was a deep connection with Hearts supporters that he will arguably find more difficult to replicate at Ibrox.

At Rangers, Lafferty will be merely another player who needs to dig deeper than ever before to impress demanding Gerrard.

Therefore, the Kesh man must reconcile himself with the reality that, while an important recruit, he will not command the same central status.

Few players get the opportunity to play for either Rangers or Celtic twice.

In the modern era, Barry Ferguson and now, keeper Allan McGregor, made positive impacts at Ibrox.

Despite a trophy haul of three Scottish titles, two League Cups and one Scottish Cup, it may even be the case that the younger, cavalier version of Lafferty took his Rangers status for granted.

As Gerrard stockpiles a much-improved squad, it will be fascinating to observe how Lafferty copes with the increased challenge.

It clearly will be. Yet he deserves credit for swapping the comfort zone for a vibrant front line, in order to create what he hopes will be a lasting Ibrox legacy.

Belfast Telegraph

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