MICHAEL Oâ€™Neill lauded Kyle Lafferty after the Norwich City forward inspired Northern Ireland to a first away win in four years in Budapest.
Lafferty has long been a mercurial presence for his country, offering so much promise but too often failing to deliver, and he came into the Euro 2016 opener against Hungary having not scored in more than two years. But he was the hero on this occasion, producing a fine run and assist for Niall McGinn to equalise Tamas Priskinâ€™s 75th-minute opener with nine minutes to go, and then scrambling home from close range to nick a win in the closing moments.
Oâ€™Neill has been critical of Laffertyâ€™s discipline in the past but he was glad to see the 26-year-old deliver at a crucial time. â€œWe needed someone to step up and Laff did that for us, Iâ€™m delighted for him,â€ said Oâ€™Neill. â€œFor the first goal he made a great run, a great piece of play. We needed something big to open the game up and Lafferty gave us that. Then he finds the winner as well.
â€œHe gave us great energy all night but he needed that goal, he really did. When heâ€™s focused and heâ€™s right on it heâ€™s an asset to any team and he showed that here.â€
Lafferty now has 10 international goals to his name and Oâ€™Neill is hoping he can become a regular scorer â€“ something Northern Ireland have been crying out for since David Healyâ€™s heyday. And in looking for further inspiration, Oâ€™Neill did not have to go too far afield.
â€œWe need a big campaign from Kyle now. Heâ€™s started great and now we need him to stay fit and keep producing,â€ said Oâ€™Neill. â€œKyle needs to give us as a centre-forward what someone like Gareth McAuley gives us as a centre-back or what Steven Davis gives us as a midfielder. We need a big campaign from all of those players.â€
â€œWhen you play away from home you need a focal point and that has to be Kyle because our other strikers maybe donâ€™t have the experience Kyle does or arenâ€™t playing at his level.â€
Not only was the result Northern Irelandâ€™s first success on their travels since a 2010 win in Slovenia, it was also Oâ€™Neillâ€™s second win in more than two and a half years at the helm. That is a record that had started to become an albatross around his neck but he insisted he had never lost heart about what his side could achieve. â€œI donâ€™t dwell on things like that,â€ he said. â€œThis is a group of players that in the last campaign got very little in their favour. Weâ€™ve had very little luck but I hoped we could change that this time.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve hammered it home to them that weâ€™ve never stopped believing in them. The performance and workrate were there and I just felt there was a belief in the players I maybe havenâ€™t seen before.
â€œThe workrate throughout the game was fantastic and they executed the game plan to a tee. But to have gone behind and then go on to win is huge for us, a really big start to the campaign for us.
â€œWe believed we could come here and get something but three points is maybe more than we believed we could get. Weâ€™ve always been difficult to beat but now we have shown we can win from that platform.â€ – The Guardian