'Out-of-control womaniser' wins back North hearts
Published 09/06/2016 | 02:30
It says a lot about Kyle Lafferty's transformation from pariah to poster-boy that plenty of the Northern Ireland supporters who had never wanted to see him in a green jersey again have been praying he will be fit enough to wear it in the country's opening match of Euro 2016 on Sunday.
The state of national angst over the condition of Lafferty's groin ahead of the game against Poland in Nice would scarcely have been imaginable a few years ago when the player once dismissed as an "out-of-control womaniser" had entered another career cul-de-sac.
In truth, it was not just others who were ready to give up on a player with a natural gravitation towards controversy and ill-discipline. Lafferty was on the verge of giving up himself by walking away from international football at the age of just 26.
"The things people say about me now I love," the Norwich City striker said. "Three years before, they said I should never wear the green shirt again. It was probably the lowest part of my career. It was hurtful and I did think about chucking it in, believing the team would benefit more without me being there.
"I hope I've changed a lot of people's minds and they realise they do need me in the squad."
They certainly realise that. When Lafferty hobbled out of training on Tuesday, the sense of panic was understandable. Only five players scored more goals in qualifying than the seven Lafferty plundered en route to France.
His importance to Michael O'Neill's team is hard to overstate, even if he cannot get a game for his club.
The sight, then, of Lafferty being restricted to working on an exercise bike yesterday was troubling, at least until he eased concerns about his fitness by tweeting that a scan had come back all clear and to "bring on the Poles".
It is all a far cry from September 2013, when Lafferty was fast reaching the point of no return.
He had struggled in the spotlight following a £3m move from Burnley to his boyhood idols, Rangers, in 2008, when the "Kyle the Clown" label became entrenched, but exasperations at club level were now being mirrored on the international stage.
Lafferty had lasted just 13 minutes as a second-half substitute in a 4-2 World Cup qualifying defeat at home against Portugal before being sent off for an awful challenge that drew a public lambasting from O'Neill, who was tiring of his dismal disciplinary record and poor attitude.
Lafferty looks back and shakes his head in dismay at the player whom he freely admits "took the p***" and who would lead Maurizio Zamparini, owner of Italian club Palermo where Lafferty spent the 2013-14 campaign, to describe him as "an out-of-control womaniser, an Irishman without rules. . . someone who disappears for a week and goes on the hunt for women in Milan".
"I missed 15 or 20 games either through suspension or not being in the right frame of mind," he said. "I probably preferred to go away to the sun for two or three days rather than play for my country.
"I wasn't fully focused at the start. I was probably given a bit too much at an early age. I got some big moves and played in big games.
"I grew up supporting Rangers but I didn't quite take the opportunity there with both hands. Glasgow is a strange place. If you don't have someone close to you looking out for you, your head will wander."
Lafferty credits a frank talk with O'Neill - and meeting his wife, Scottish model Vanessa Chung - for turning his career around.
From failing to score once in the last World Cup qualifying campaign, when Northern Ireland finished second bottom of their group, Lafferty looked reborn in qualifying for the Euros - despite being unable to get a look-in for Norwich, for whom he played just 13 minutes in the Premier League before being shipped off to Birmingham City on loan in March.
"It's strange because I have this unbelievable belief when I come away with the national team," Lafferty said. "They'll believe in me that I'll do something to change the game.
"They know that if I turn up, we can beat anyone really. The last year has been an absolute nightmare for me, club wise. But I love coming here with Northern Ireland. Not in a cocky way, but I'm the centre of attention."
Even Zamparini seems to have changed his mind about Lafferty.
"He tried to sign me in January again, so there's your answer about what he said previously!" Lafferty said, laughing. "The president knew what Palermo meant to me. I always went out and gave 100pcI was the fans' favourite, and I think they were a bit upset to see me sold."
If Lafferty rises to the occasion in France, it may not just be Palermo who come calling again this summer. Northern Ireland's renaissance man just needs to make sure he is fit and available now. (© Daily Telegraph, London)