This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2016 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for France.
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Patience is not a known virtue of Maurizio Zamparini, the famously short-tempered owner of Palermo who made nine managerial changes last season alone and once warned his players he intended to: “cut off their testicles and eat them in my salad.” Charming. Yet even the irascible 75-year-old was not prepared for what awaited his club when Kyle Lafferty arrived on a free transfer from FC Sion in 2013.
“He is an out-of-control womaniser, an Irishman without rules,” Zamparini told a local Sicilian radio station as he prepared to sell the Northern Ireland striker to Norwich City after only one season. “He is someone who disappears for a week and goes on the hunt for women in Milan. He never trains, he’s completely off the rails. On the field he’s a great player, because he gave us everything he had and more. In terms of his behaviour, however, he is uncontrollable. My coach (Beppe Iachini) told me he cannot sort this player out, so he has to go.”
Reputations are hard to shift in football and the Palermo president’s verdict on Lafferty merely reinforced the image of a wayward talent, one who had struggled in the spotlight following his £3m move from Burnley to boyhood idols Glasgow Rangers in 2008. It speaks volumes about the 28-year-old’s transformation, however, that he enters the European Championships as a bone fide hero in Northern Ireland and a key player for a manager who demands discipline, hard work and respect from every member of the squad.
Lafferty is a striker reborn under Michael O’Neill, one of the few managers who has been unable to unlock the towering centre-forward’s potential on a regular basis. He failed to score once in O’Neill’s first qualifying campaign as manager, for the 2014 World Cup, when Northern Ireland won only one of 10 matches to finish second from bottom of their group behind Azerbaijan and one point above Luxembourg. He scored seven times as Northern Ireland qualified for their first European Championships and first major tournament for 30 years as group winners. Only Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Müller, Edin Dzeko and Artyom Dzyuba of Russia scored more in qualifying.
The turning point is easy to identify. It came after a 4-2 World Cup qualifying defeat against Portugal in 2013 when Lafferty appeared as a frustrated substitute and lasted only 13 minutes before he was sent off for a reckless foul. O’Neill slaughtered the striker in public, accusing Lafferty of “letting his team-mates down”. In private, the manager issued more home truths that hit the striker hard.
“The transformation is down to Michael,” Lafferty admits. “He sat me down the day after I was sent off against Portugal. It’s difficult when you think you’ve got a good relationship with someone and a guy you respect is saying things that hurt you. But when I went away and had a think about it, I knew he was right. He then gave me another chance and called me into the squad for the Cyprus match and a lot of managers wouldn’t have done that.
“When I came on against Portugal we were winning the game and in the first 30 seconds I lost my man and it cost us a goal. It doesn’t matter who it was, Ronaldo or someone else, I lost my man and then I was sent off after 13 and a half minutes. It was difficult and I’m pretty sure every other manager would have lost the plot with me. But he sat me down and talked to me like an adult. The things he said, he actually made me believe the lads need me in the team. He made me wake up. Had it not been for the sending off against Portugal I don’t know if I would be in this position now, helping the team. Obviously I had to grow up sometime. I can’t always be the player who loves a joke off the pitch but performs one in every three games. The team and the country needs the Kyle Lafferty with the head screwed on, not the clown.”
O’Neill has improved Lafferty’s confidence as well as form by making it clear he will start regularly and is a crucial part of the team. That was not the case at club level last season, where the striker made merely three substitute appearances for relegated Norwich City before joining Birmingham City on loan in the Championship.
Lafferty’s transformation is confined to Northern Ireland and, in what may come as a surprise to Zamparini, his private life. He married Scottish model Vanessa Chung at Gleneagles Hotel on the Saturday before joining up with his international team-mates at a pre-Euro training camp just outside Dublin. The honeymoon will have to wait. Six days after the wedding, Lafferty won his 50th cap for Northern Ireland against Belarus.
“I should have done it a long time ago to be honest,” he said of reaching the half century. “In my first few years of my international career I took the piss really. I turned up whenever I wanted, messed about and wasn’t concentrating on things. The last two or three years I have settled down, got my head sorted and turn up for every single game now. I started nine games out of 10 in the last campaign and to score seven goals was amazing. It helped the team to qualify which isn’t just great for us as players, but also great for the country.”
Secrets behind the other squad members
Grigg was the subject of one of 2015-16’s more innovative terrace chants. Wigan fans’ “Will Grigg’s on fire” adaption of Gala’s 1990s hit Free From Desire swiftly went viral. Sample lyric: “He will score goals, he will just score more and more. He will score goals, that’s what we signed him for. Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified.” Wigan fan Sean Kennedy was rewarded with a free season ticket by the club for coming up with the chant. Grigg is now regularly serenaded with the song by his Northern Ireland team-mates when the squad meet up: “It’s when I’m walking anywhere, even meeting up with the boys here, it’s the first thing they sing,” he said.
The goalkeeper has battled back from depression and alcoholism that afflicted him following spells at Manchester United and West Ham to remain a core part of the Northern Ireland squad, at the age of 38. He attributes the revitalisation of his career to spells in Greece, first with OFI Crete then Olympiakos, where he acquired cult status after saving a penalty in his first match for the club, a Europa League tie against Rubin Kazan in February 2012. He is now back in Northern Ireland, at Linfield, after a two-year stint at Notts County.
The QPR striker worked as a postman before turning professional, while playing in the Southern Football League for St Ives in Cornwall, for whom he scored 64 goals in 60 matches before earning a move to Newport County in October 2012. He moved to Peterborough before joining QPR for £2.5m in January this year.
Baird has played more times for Northern Ireland (76) than for any of his nine domestic clubs bar Fulham (127). In the 2004-05 season, his only five senior appearances were in international matches.
Jonny and Corry Evans
Both Jonny Evans and his younger brother Corry made their Northern Ireland debuts before having played their first senior game at club level. Jonny earned his first cap in the 3-2 win over Spain in September 2006, four months before his debut for Sunderland, on loan from Manchester United, in an FA Cup tie at Preston. Corry’s first Northern Ireland appearance was in a friendly against Italy in Pisa in May 2009 but did not make his club debut until October 2010, when on loan at Carlisle from Manchester United.
• Andy Hunter writes for the Guardian.
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