Kyle Lafferty is a player that manages to cause delight and despair for Northern Ireland fans in pretty equal measures. On one hand, you have a player who is constantly feeling twinges in his hamstrings around the same time that a squad list for an international friendly is pinned up in Belfast. On the other, he is a tall, capable forward and given the talent pool available, is not someone we can do without if we are to strive towards a place at a major tournament.
The problems with Lafferty have been there for much of his career. Under the tenure of Nigel Worthington, the Rangers player was available for less than 50% of the games played. The Sunday evening at the beginning of an international week was constantly characterised by the predictable news that with only a pointless friendly looming, Lafferty would not be meeting up with the party.
You could argue that towards the end of Worthington’s reign, a large percentage of the squad weren’t bothering to show up when called – but Lafferty’s problem has seemingly been around ever since he established as the then striker partner of David Healy.
Following an impressive turn during the post-season tour of the United States in 2006, he scored his first goal for Northern Ireland against Finland in August of the same year. The then Burnley player, who was used by club manager Owen Coyle across the forward line, quickly became the second striker in the squad behind David Healy. More often than not, Lafferty would start games for the Green and White Army out wide, with the obvious instructions to support Healy as often as possible.
More recently, he has progressed to be considered the leading striker in the side. The promotion has as much to do with Lafferty improving as player as it does with Healy’s struggles to retain his own abilities. Lafferty is a better than he was – that is obvious to see. 18 months ago, his own sheer desire was the main reason that Northern Ireland were able to leave the Faroe Islands with a point to their name and avoid an embarrassing defeat.
However, Lafferty doesn’t exactly have masses of competition for his place in the side. The fact that David Healy has spent of his recent career making rare substitute appearances for Rangers, Sunderland, Fulham is finally starting to catch up on him. Warren Feeney has never been a player who has prospered at international level, especially in leading the line. More recently, he has been used more in midfielder at club level. Martin Paterson’s development has been hit by injuries, Josh McQuoid has struggled to score goals regularly since both he and Eddie Howe departed Bournemouth and the others – namely Peter Thompson, Liam Boyce, Jordan Owens and Rory Patterson – just aren’t playing at a high enough level.
The situation leaves Michael O’Neill between a rock and a hard place. To alienate Lafferty for poor attendance could be arguably a mistake and may lead to a simmering tension not too dissimilar from what is occurring between Scotland and their striker Steven Fletcher, who is easily their best front man at the moment. To constantly welcome the Rangers player into the squad when he wants to show up won’t do him any favours with the other players selected.
Lafferty obviously needs a talking to, face-to-face, no holds barred. He either shows up for his country, in person and in his play, or he makes a decision not to bother. I have no doubts that unless genuinely injured, he won’t miss the opportunity to grace the hollowed turf of the Amsterdam Arena in June. He needs to have the habit of picking and choosing his non-competitive appearances drilled out of him.