Kyle Lafferty gives the squad belief - Michael O'Neill
Published 08/09/2015 | 16:59
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill admitted he almost withdrew Kyle Lafferty before he had the chance to continue his scoring streak with a dramatic equaliser against Hungary.
Lafferty has not featured for Norwich so far this season due to a knee injury and has had less than a week of first-team training.
But he took his tally in Euro 2016 qualifying to seven in eight games when he belted home from close range deep into added time to keep his country top of Group F with a crucial point.
Lafferty has been the shining light in a remarkable campaign for O'Neill's fifth seeds, but the manager was ready to give him a well-earned breather shortly before Hungary opened the scoring following Michael McGovern's dreadful handling error.
It was a decision he had wrestled with and it was duly junked as soon as the hosts were chasing the game.
"We were taking Kyle off at 0-0 but by the time we were ready to make the change it was 1-0 and it suddenly changed," said O'Neill.
"Kyle hasn't played a single minute of club football this season, or in pre-season, and he was really struggling.
"We just felt he couldn't give us any more.
"But the thing about taking off Kyle is you're taking off your talisman.
"If I'm the opposition manager I'm happy to see Kyle going off so we didn't want to give them that hope or satisfaction.
"At 1-0 it was essential to keep him on the pitch. He treaded water for the last 20-25 minutes but he was there at the right time.
"He gives the squad belief and there's no greater testament to that than what we saw tonight."
Northern Ireland's belated escape was all the more unlikely given Chris Baird's dismissal in the 82nd minute.
The midfielder, who had excelled all evening, was controversially given two bookings for fouls in the same phase of play.
The referee logged one caution having waved play on, then added a second when Baird dived in late seconds later.
But O'Neill was not happy about that, arguing Baird was unaware he had already been placed on notice.
"In my whole time in football I've never seen a player booked twice in that situation," he said.
"There's no doubt he should be booked for the second tackle but he doesn't know he's been booked for the first instance.
"If he knows he's being booked for the first he won't make the second tackle.
"In playing the advantage and not telling the player (he's been booked)...I just think it's a really unusual decision.
"I can't pretend I know the rules well enough to say if it's legitimate or not but I think it's a very, very harsh decision.
"For a player to be sent off like that could have cost us a place at the finals."
O'Neill had spent the past three days fielding questions about the prospect of Northern Ireland guaranteeing their place in France on the 10th anniversary of their famous 1-0 defeat of England.
At times it felt that was their destiny and t he 10,000 fans who crammed into a Windsor Park stadium in a state of partial reconstruction came to see just that.
But O'Neill, for one, was in no mood to feel deflated having banked another vital point.
"It's slightly unrealistic for us to be disappointed not to qualify after eight games, let's be honest," he said.
"I don't think Spain are qualified yet so I think we're doing okay to still be in the mix.
"We're in a great position. If you offered us a four-point gap over third place with two games to go, of course we'd have taken that."