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# born again
How Kyle Lafferty went from 'out-of-control womaniser' to Northern Ireland's saviour
The man-management skills of Michael O’Neill have led to the striker’s renaissance.

IF THERE WAS a turning point for Michael O’Neill’s side, it came in their first Euro 2016 qualifier against Hungary.

Conceding after 75 minutes, the Northern Ireland players trooped to the centre circle with heads bowed. It was a similar feeling. Competitive up to a point, this was another game destined to get away from them.

But instead of folding, they pushed hard for the final ten minutes and in Kyle Lafferty they found an unlikely inspirational figure.

The attacker was in a bad place. Struggling after joining Norwich a few months before, he had been sold by Italian side Palermo despite scoring 11 goals in his debut campaign, helping the club to promotion to Serie A and being voted Player of the Season by supporters. But his reputation proved his undoing. When banished by Palermo, their owner Maurizio Zamparini explained the decision to an Italian radio station.

Lafferty is sold as a result of a precise request from my coach Beppe Iachini. He (Lafferty) is an out-of-control womaniser, an Irishman without rules. He is someone who disappears for a week and goes on the hunt for women in Milan. He has two families with six children, he never trains and he’s completely off the rails.”

“On the field he’s a great player because he gave us everything he had and more. In terms of his behaviour, however, he is uncontrollable. My coach told me he cannot sort this player out out, so he has to go.”

In O’Neill’s first qualification campaign as Northern Ireland boss (World Cup 2014), Lafferty conjured more red cards for his country (one) than he did goals (none). There were some positive moments like an away draw with Portugal and a home win against Russia. But they provided some temporary relief from the relentless and depressingly inevitable disappointment, especially the humiliating loss to Luxembourg.

Michael O'Neill 4/3/2014 ©INPHO / Presseye/William Cherry Michael O'Neill's man-management skills have got the very best from striker Kyle Lafferty. ©INPHO / Presseye/William Cherry / Presseye/William Cherry

Still, O’Neill was handed a contract extension and determined to build something tangible, he spoke to his misfiring striker prior to Euro 2016 qualifying and offered him some home truths.

“The last campaign I let everyone down”, said Lafferty.

“But Michael had a word with me and it really hit home. I am probably glad he did that. The trust he has shown in me means a lot.”

In Budapest that night, Lafferty won his team the game. With ten minutes left, he played a neat one-two with Steven Davis, picked up the return and charged powerfully into the area before driving a perfect pass across goal for Niall McGinn to equalise. On 88 minutes, McGinn returned the favour, sent in a low cross to the far post and Lafferty bundled the ball to the net.

Incredibly, it was the team’s first away victory for four years. Afterwards, an ebullient O’Neill gave an insight into just how crucial man-management can be in enticing big performances from key players.

“He’s had a difficult year. He’s been abroad and he’s not had a great year internationally, he’s played very little football. The key for me was that we’ve had a couple of deep conversations – what’s his focus, what does he want to bring to the team and those conversations have been very positive. I had five minutes with him tonight before the game and I felt that we’d get a performance out of him. We need a focal point of the team and he certainly gives us that.”

Domestically, Lafferty has suffered through another turbulent season. In 11 Championship starts, he managed one goal and Norwich finally lost patience, deciding to pack him off to Turkey on loan until the end of the term. He’s scored once in 7 appearances for struggling Rizespor so far.

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In complete contrast, he’s grabbed goals in four of Northern Ireland’s five qualifiers so far. He was unplayable in Piraeus as his side registered an eye-catching 2-0 victory in October, grabbing one goal and seeing another brilliant effort rebound off the underside of the bar.

Kyle Lafferty celebrates scoring Presseye / Brian Little/INPHO Lafferty scored twice in Northern Ireland's 2-1 win over Finland yesterday. The victory leaves them second in Group F with five games to play. Presseye / Brian Little/INPHO / Brian Little/INPHO

Yesterday evening in Belfast, he played the target man’s role to perfection as O’Neill’s charges were comfortable for long periods against Finland. Lafferty’s first goal was magnificent – swiveling neatly to volley a measured volley to the bottom corner after McGinn’s cushioned header teed him up. And five minutes later, he was stationed on the edge of the six-yard area to carefully send Conor McLaughlin’s teasing cross to the net.

The 27 year-old is in exalted company. A quick glance at the top scorers’ list will tell you only Danny Welbeck has scored more goals than him in qualifying. He’s managed a better tally so far than Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Edin Dzeko.

But as much as the focus has been centred on his renaissance, Lafferty has been quick to point to the real secret to Northern Ireland’s recent success – the spirit of the group and the skills of his manager.

What Michael says inspires me and gets me up for the games. I’m buzzing playing for him. He is the best manager I have played under and gets the best from me. He pulls me to one side before every game.”

“I don’t like calling myself a hero, I think all the boys were heroes out there. But it’s down to the team, everyone was excellent today. Although I’m getting the goals and the rewards you have to look at the team performance.”

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