Having scored seven times in Northern Ireland’s last eight games, Kyle Lafferty is firmly amongst the top goalscorers for the European Qualifiers, being bettered only by Bayern Munich duo Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski – two of the world’s finest and most decorated strikers.
When Northern Ireland trailed to Hungary on Monday night, they were again searching for a hero. Defeat would mean they would slip into second, and Hungary would close the gap, undoing some of Northern Ireland’s hard work thus far. But, in the final minute, who else but Kyle Lafferty found an all-important equaliser. As a result, Northern Ireland remain in the driving seat with just two games to go.
In green, Lafferty is a legend. A talisman. A beacon of hope for a nation who have never before reached the finals. He, along with his teammates, brings a certain excitement and national pride that England supporters can only dream of.
But in yellow and green, the story isn’t so sweet. In fact, he could even be classified as Norwich City’s fifth-choice striker.
When Lafferty scored that late equaliser, more and more questions were asked of ‘why can’t he do it for Norwich?’, and perhaps more prevalently, a debate over whether he deserves a chance began.
It has split opinion.
Some feel that Jerome and the prospect of new signing Mbokani remain Norwich’s most profitable assets. Others recognise that despite Jerome’s wembley-hero status, he is yet to secure his first Premier League goal for the Canaries. That said I personally think Jerome has been very unlucky not to score (especially that goal which Simon Hooper wrongly ruled out) however a couple of key chances have gone begging, such as a one-on-one with Jack Butland against Stoke City.
The crux issue is this: 14 of Kyle Lafferty’s 18 Norwich City appearances were not up front. He’s either been stranded on the left, stranded on the right, or placed on the bench. Only one of those 18 appearances brought the privilege of a full 90 minutes. In fact, his average playing time per game amounted to almost exactly 45 minutes. Football is played across 90 minutes. No striker, be it Bayern’s Muller or Norwich’s Lafferty, should be made to prove themselves in half a game of football. But then perhaps the better players prove themselves even when the odds are against them. I guess that’s ultimately the crucial question.
Either way, I don’t think we’ve given him the best chance to succeed, and that ultimately makes subsequent judgements about his ability carry less weight.
Lafferty was one of Neil Adams’ signings and the other Neil clearly wasn’t interested upon arrival. Kyle Lafferty was sent on a plane and told to spend the rest of the 2014/15 season practically as far away from Carrow Road as possible. His destination; Çaykur Rizespor. Yep, I’d never heard of them either. But his tweets since have shown his positive attitude: he wants to play for Norwich and he wants to play in the Premier League.
But many look to his less than mind-blowing goalscoring statistics. At Rangers, a comparatively lower standard of football, he managed just 38 in 138 appearances. At his next club, FC Sion, he scored 5 in 25 before notching another 11 for Serie B club Palermo in 2013-14.
Norwich City’s latest signing, Dieumerci Mbokani has a far better record. He’s averaged more than one in every other game for the last four years of his career, making him a more appetising option. He’s also been playing for the likes of Standard Liege, Anderlecht and Dynamo Kyiv, who in respect, are higher quality than Palermo, Sion and Rangers.
But I don’t think that’s what this is necessarily about. I think it’s more a case that Lafferty should at the very least be included in the squad, especially given that the transfer window is now closed and what we have is what we’re stuck with. And when a player is impressing as much as Lafferty is on the international stage, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be offered an opportunity to try and replicate that on the domestic level.
It would be very bold to claim that Lafferty should immediately start up front, but at the same time form should be a key factor in the manager’s selection. Throwing him straight back in would be a rash move, yet it seems only fair that he’s in Alex Neil’s consideration, especially for a position on the bench.
Grabban has burnt his bridges (at least with the fans), Hooper was on the verge of leaving and is a striker who is far more effective playing in a partnership, something we can only offer at the expense of an already pressured midfield. van Wolfswinkel’s departure means there is a vacant position on that bench.
The other issue that’s been brought up by some fans is the teams he’s scoring these goals against: two have come against the Faroe Islands whose squad consists largely of players plying their trade in the Icelandic and Danish divisions, save ‘keeper Gunnar Nielsen who currently sits on the bench for Scottish side Motherwell. But goals against Hungary, Greece and Finland should not be underestimated. After all, you can only score against the teams you come up against. Lafferty has done that – notably in a Northern Ireland side that isn’t brimming with quality itself.
You would think Lafferty is the sort of player Neil likes too. Tall, powerful, direct. Our tendency and almost necessity to play one striker up front bodes well for him. He has a good relationship with the other players, previously describing the dressing room as being ‘one of the best teams in terms of bonding he’s ever worked in’ and his passion on the pitch is evident. Sometimes too evident.
His discipline can become a problem. ‘The Walking Yellow Card’ is a light-hearted nickname to summarise what can become a frustrating issue. He’s picked up five yellow card suspensions in the last three seasons. How the Northern Irishman was still on the pitch against Shrewsbury – a night I try not to bring up too often – remains a mystery. Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, Lafferty accumulated another yellow card in the most recent game vs Hungary, meaning he is now suspended for the first of their final two qualification matches.
In today’s Premier League it seems increasingly easy to pick up a yellow card – or a second – or a red. If Lafferty is to have a future at the top level of British football then he’ll need to rein that side of his game in.
The potential paradox in my argument is that while I don’t think he’s good enough to walk straight into the first team, I also don’t think cameo substitute appearances are the best representation of his ability. So how does he prove himself? Or is it telling that he can’t make an impact from substitute appearances?
Just over a week ago Norwich fans were breaking sweat over City’s striking options as the transfer window drew to its close. The arrival of Mbokani calmed some nerves, but there’s no doubt not everything went to plan. The fact Norwich have a striker in the reserves who is scoring is a precious commodity and I think we should be in no rush to loan him out.
Hopefully, in the same way that Grabban was sanctioned for his bad attitude, Lafferty will be rewarded and will get that chance he deserves. Whether he can take it, if it ever comes about, is an entirely different issue.