Michael Walker: No man’s land at Norwich not place for O’Neill’s talisman

Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty has 13 minutes in Premier League this season

Kyle Lafferty in action for Northern Ireland in a friendly against Latvia at Windsor Park last November. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Kyle Lafferty in action for Northern Ireland in a friendly against Latvia at Windsor Park last November. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Since Norwich City last won a match they have played 10, lost nine and not scored in six of them. Something’s not right. Meanwhile, every morning Kyle Lafferty goes to the Norwich training ground to work, sometimes with the first team, sometimes with the under-21s.

But on matchday, Kyle Lafferty is nowhere to be seen. The man whose goals propelled Northern Ireland to the European Championship finals in France is a non-player at Carrow Road.

Lafferty (28) has had 13 minutes of Premier League football this season. It is a season in which, just like the last, he has scored vital goals for Northern Ireland. It is a season in which, just like the last, he has been unable to do so for Norwich. He is a pretty curious international footballer.

And as Euro 2016 creeps up week by week, it looks like Lafferty’s situation is not about to change.

In Belfast next Wednesday Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill will name his squad for the forthcoming friendlies against Wales and Slovenia and Lafferty will again be included. The big man from Fermanagh is one of the numerous small green successes that O’Neill has manufactured over the past two years and Lafferty can expect to start and finish these friendlies.

O’Neill needs Lafferty as close to match-fit as the Norwich predicament will allow. The two men have formed a bond, one that appeared unlikely not so long ago.

In qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Northern Ireland were drawn from pot four and finished fifth. Lafferty played in five of the 10 games and ended the campaign with more red cards – one – than goals. O’Neill was unimpressed with Lafferty’s discipline and let him know.

Finished first

In qualification for Euro 2016 Northern Ireland were drawn from pot five and finished first. Lafferty appeared in nine games and scored seven times. Across Europe only Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Müller, Edin Dzeko and Russia’s Artem Dzyuba scored more. And they don’t play alone up front for Northern Ireland.

Lafferty’s willingness in this role has been an example to his colleagues, who have responded. The camaraderie at the Culloden hotel base in Cultra is evident, yet when Lafferty packs his bags on international duty it is to return to the fringes at Norwich City. He goes from centre forward to left outside. He must be baffled.

It is 20 months since Lafferty moved to Norwich, after a season with Palermo in Serie B. Neil Adams was the Norwich manager at the time; they had just been relegated from the Premier League.

Lafferty was given the number nine jersey, which is a reason to believe. But on the first day of last season, Lafferty was on the bench. It was an omen. It took Norwich’s new number nine until January to score his first – and only – goal of the season.

It was against Cardiff City in what was Alex Neil’s first home game. Adams had been sacked; Lafferty must have thought he had made a favourable impression on the new manager. Instead Lafferty made one more appearance – as a sub – and was loaned out to the Turkish club Rizespor.

While Lafferty was over there in Turkey, Norwich went from outside the play-off places to winning the final at Wembley against Middlesbrough. Alex Neil’s judgement was hard to fault.

All the while, for Northern Ireland, Lafferty scored goals – against Hungary (home and away), against Greece, the Faroes (home and away) and Finland.

He was re-writing his story and returned to Norwich from Turkey last summer motivated by Northern Ireland and determined to prove himself to Alex Neil. But Lafferty’s jersey went from No 9 to No 19, he did not make the bench on the opening day of the new Premier League season and watched over the weeks as Cameron Jerome, Gary Hooper and Lewis Grabban were chosen.

Departed

That was before Dieumerci Mbokani arrived on loan from Dynamo Kiev, that was before Steven Naismith was signed in January and Patrick Bamford also moved on loan. Hooper and Grabban have departed but Lafferty has as many faces as ever to compete with.

Yet, as was stated at the beginning, Norwich aren’t scoring. Nathan Redmond is their top scorer in the league with five. Wes Hoolahan has four.

Lafferty has been offered routes out – loan deals with Leeds United and FC Sion in Switzerland, where he played before – but his Premier League wages have been a hurdle too high and now we’re approaching mid-March.

Today, when Norwich host Manchester City, Lafferty will be a bystander again despite his club’s recent sharp decline. On January 2nd when Norwich beat Southampton 1-0 the Premier League table showed them 14th, two places above Chelsea and eight points and five places above Sunderland.

Now they are 18th, a point behind Sunderland and Kyle Lafferty watches on. He did actually score against Man City last week, but that was as an overage player for the under-21s.

The game was at a sparsely populated Carrow Road. It’s become a no man’s land for Kyle Lafferty.

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