Kyle Lafferty has demonstrated the unity within Northern Ireland’s squad by praising Michael O’Neill for a “superb” team selection against Ukraine and insisting it should be retained for the group finale with Germany.
Northern Ireland’s leading goalscorer was the notable omission when O’Neill made five changes for Thursday’s crucial match in Lyon and saw his boldness rewarded with the country’s first win at a major tournament for 34 years. The 2-0 victory eliminated Ukraine and should Northern Ireland qualify from Group C in third, they may meet England or France in the last 16.
O’Neill preferred Conor Washington in attack having noted how Ukraine’s central defenders struggled with Mario Götze’s mobility in their opening 2-0 defeat by the world champions. The manager also introduced Josh Magennis as a late substitute instead of Lafferty because, he said, the Kilmarnock striker was “probably a better marker at set pieces”.
Lafferty was instrumental in securing Northern Ireland’s place in France with seven goals and underwent a personal fitness programme before the tournament having made nine club appearances last season. But he admitted the players responsible for a superb display against Ukraine deserve to retain their places for Tuesday’s game with Germany in Paris.
“Of course I’m disappointed not to play in our biggest game in 30 years,” the Norwich City forward said. “Michael made massive changes – five players from the first game is a massive shout – but it paid off. As a fan I am absolutely delighted for every player. Conor and I have a great relationship so I’m absolutely delighted for him. With the performance he put in, he deserves another chance against Germany. The front three that started against Ukraine were absolutely brilliant.
“I’m standing here disappointed for myself but, hand on heart, the call the manager has made was superb. He has put out the 11 men he thought could do a job and now we are here with three points and two goals. It worked. I can’t complain about that. I don’t think any of the lads who started deserve to be dropped. They sweated blood against Ukraine and deserve another chance. Germany will be facing the team with the best heart and determination in the whole tournament. We won’t be afraid of this game at all. We’ve lost one out of our last 13 and we’ve six clean sheets out of seven games.”
Aaron Hughes was another selection surprise by O’Neill, with the 36-year-old handed his first competitive start since the 2-0 defeat in Romania in November 2014. The veteran shackled Ukraine’s Yevhen Konoplyanka throughout; an impressive feat from a veteran without a club following his release by Melbourne City last season.
“That’s why I want us to stay in the competition – because I’ve got no job to go to,” said the former Newcastle United and Fulham defender. “I just wanted to come here and experience the competition and hopefully get some game-time. I have no plans afterwards. I have made a conscious effort not to think about it. I just want to enjoy this. I’ll probably never get another chance to do it. At the moment it is very hard to put the emotions into words.
“I’ve had some good days in football, some great moments, but beating Ukraine has got to top them all.”
Jonny Evans said he cried when he celebrated with his brother Corry after the final whistle. The Evanses became the first brothers to feature for Northern Ireland at a major tournament when starting against Ukraine, and the West Bromwich Albion defender said: “I haven’t felt that emotional on a football pitch before. I don’t think anything can top that. The fact my brother was on the pitch as well made it such a great occasion. I hugged him after the game and I went! Corry just said: ‘What are you crying for?’”
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