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9 June 2016

Will our man shine in France?

Name: Kyle Lafferty
Age: 28
Nation: Northern Ireland

Road to the Euros

A 2-1 victory over Hungary in their first qualifying match was the springboard for both Northern Ireland's remarkable campaign and Kyle Lafferty's international goal glut.

Lafferty scored the winner in the 88th-minute in Budapest, clinching a surprise three points for Michael O'Neill's men - and their first away win for four years.

The 28-year-old then backed up his crucial strike with further goals in victories over the Faroe Islands and Greece as the Irish made a stunning start to their campaign.

Momentum might have been halted with their 2-0 loss in Romania in November 2014, but when the talismanic Lafferty struck twice in a five-minute spell to help beat Finland 2-1, supporters started to believe their dream of following their country at a major tournament for the first time in 30 years may become a reality.

A 3-1 victory over the Faroe Islands last September, with Lafferty on the scoresheet once again, left Northern Ireland on the brink of qualification with Hungary, Greece and Finland left to play.

Another late strike from Lafferty secured a 1-1 draw with the former, before their place in France was confirmed with a convincing 3-1 triumph over Greece in October.

Q&A - Steven Beacom, Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor (@StevenBeacom5)

Q: Not many people would have foreseen the impact Kyle Lafferty had during qualifying - how was his international career viewed before the campaign?

Kyle was stuck in a rut before the campaign. He had been sent off against Portugal in World Cup qualifying, and the manager Michael O'Neill was very critical of him on that occasion. There was a chat between Michael and Kyle before the Euros qualifying campaign, and they ironed a few things out. Michael basically said to Kyle that he can either drift along in his international career, or make himself a star - thankfully he went with the latter. He scored seven goals over the course of qualifying, and he's now a legend in Northern Ireland.

Q: How much of a surprise was the impact he had, or did you always feel there was something there with Kyle that just had to be uncovered?

Personally, I always thought there was something there. I'd watched him play in a few internationals and felt he had great potential. I remember him playing well in two tough matches away to Poland and Sweden, and I thought to myself 'here's a guy who's got ability and talent'. You always fear that players won't reach their potential, and at that time it was tough going for Northern Ireland. They weren't winning many matches, but things turned for the better.

Q: What do you think clicked for him?

That conversation he had with Michael was a defining point in his international career. They sat down and discussed how good he could be, and scoring the winning goal in the first match of the campaign away to Hungary was massive for him. All of a sudden, he got belief and the team got momentum. Confidence is a big part of football, and he had confidence that he could be a leader for Northern Ireland. It gave him great heart that he was so important to the team.

Q: It appeared that he thrived in that role of talisman, do you think that was the case?

He's the type of player who enjoys responsibility, and he's proven that in this team, that's for sure. He's a real handful for defences. Everyone who knows Kyle knows that he loves a laugh and a joke, but when he gets on that pitch he's a very serious operator and he's shown that over the past couple of years against top class defences.

Q: Do you think he can carry his form into the tournament?

This tournament means the world to Kyle. It's the biggest football few weeks of his life. He's not just doing this for himself though, he's doing it for his family and for the fans who have been brilliant with him. He's going to go out there and give total commitment, and I believe he can have an impact. The first game is massively important against Poland, because Northern Ireland are on an amazing run of 12 games without defeat and Kyle has played a monumental part in that. The players want to keep that going.

Where and when?

Northern Ireland are competing in their first major tournament for 30 years, and they start against Poland in Nice on Sunday, June 12 before going head-to-head with Ukraine (Thursday, June 16) in Lyon and world champions Germany (Tuesday, June 21) in Paris. 

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