One slip, one little twist, as Michael O’Neill put it, and a hush descended over Parc de Montchervet when Kyle Lafferty clutched his groin in pain before hobbling out of Northern Ireland’s open training session on Tuesday.
The silence generated by the big noise of the squad was instructive.
The scare would have barely registered at club level, yet seasoned observers of Northern Ireland and hundreds of locals were transfixed as the towering centre-forward limped away. Everyone present understood Lafferty’s importance to the team. It explains the wild contradiction between the striker’s fortunes for clubs and country that no one is more aware of that mantle than the man himself.
Lafferty has made as many international appearances in the past 12 months as games played at club level, where he ended last season on loan at Birmingham City having been deemed surplus to requirements by Alex Neil at Norwich City for the second successive campaign.
It will be 10-9 in favour of Northern Ireland matches on Sunday when O’Neill’s team open their European Championship against Poland in Nice. The 28-year-old insists he will be available having sat out Wednesday’s training session as a precaution before getting the all-clear on the groin problem following a scan in Lyon. It is a mark of the striker’s progression that injury is the only thing that can keep him away from Northern Ireland now.
“It is strange,” says Lafferty of the contrast in his status for clubs and country. “Because the belief I have with the national team is unbelievable. Michael made me realise how important I am to the team. They know that if I turn up we can beat anyone. The last year has been an absolute nightmare for me, club-wise, but I’ve enjoyed coming away and knowing I’m going to get game time.
“Not in a cocky way but I’m the centre of attention. The more I score the more I want to do even better. The press I’m getting, the things people say about me, I love all that. Three years before, they said I should never wear the green shirt again. That was hurtful and I hope I’ve changed a lot of people’s minds. It was probably the lowest part of my career. It was hurtful and I did think about chucking it. Would the team benefit more without me being there? I spoke to the people who matter to me and they talked me out of it.”
Lafferty has frequently cited O’Neill, and specifically the home truths the manager delivered following the forward’s foolish dismissal against Portugal in 2013, as reason for his revival. Seven goals in qualifying – a feat bettered only by Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Müller, Edin Dzeko and Russia’s Artyom Dzyuba – is the measure of the response and his influence on Northern Ireland’s first qualification for a tournament in 30 years. But there is a significant other who refocused the man from Enniskillen on and off the pitch, Lafferty’s new wife, Vanessa Chung.
“A month to six weeks after the Portugal game I met my wife now,” he explains. “Although it was early-doors, she came to every game. The things she was saying to me, she wanted me to go out and give my all. She put me in a nice place and there was someone in the stands who I wanted to make proud of me. My family was there as well but they’re going to be proud of me no matter what I do. But someone I’d just met and wanted the best for me – I think everyone knows that when you find someone you love, you want to make them proud and they’ll put you in a nice place.”
The couple married on 21 May at Gleneagles hotel, shortly after Northern Ireland’s preparations for France began but before the original date Lafferty had set with the Scottish model. “Initially it was set for 28 May,” the striker adds. “But early-doors, not even halfway through qualifying, I said to Michael: ‘I’m getting married on the 28th but the way we’re going I truly believe we’re going to qualify – what do you think I should do?’ He said the 28th should be fine but if you can get it a week or two earlier then try it. It cost a bit to move the date but it was worth it. My wife understands football comes first. She’s come to France and she’ll be supporting me. Hopefully we’ll have an even better honeymoon if we achieve expectations.”
The picture of marital harmony and off-field stability is a far cry from the Palermo president, Maurizio Zamparini, infamously describing Lafferty as “an out-of-control womaniser”. Northern Ireland’s talisman was named supporters’ player of the season after helping Palermo win promotion to Serie A with 11 goals in 2013-14.
Was the notoriously short-tempered president who then sold him to Norwich being fair? “He tried to sign me in January again, so there’s your answer,” Lafferty replies.
“Although there was a language barrier, we had a good relationship. The president knew what Palermo meant to me. I always went out and gave 100%, which he said in the exact same interview. The fans saw me as one of the better players in the team and were a bit upset with the club and the president when they sold me. I think he had to cover his own back but I haven’t held it against him. I know what he’s like. The guy is crazy but he’s got a heart of gold. When I heard that he was interested in me in January I got excited but nothing happened. Palermo will always have a part of my heart.”
The focus is now firmly on Poland, Ukraine, Germany – but also his fitness and frame of mind. “I think I missed 15 or 20 games either through suspension or not being in the right frame of mind early in my career,” admits Lafferty. “I preferred to go away to the sun for two or three days rather than play for my country. It should be a special moment and young kids are brought up, and even old men, to give their right arm to play for their country. I wasn’t fully focused but I am now and I can’t wait to start. Michael made me feel wanted and made me realise how important I was to the squad and to him. I’m glad he had that conversation with me. Between him and my wife, they’re the two people the country has to thank for what I’ve done over the last two years.”
This article was written by Andy Hunter in St Georges de Reneins, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th June 2016 23.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010