BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
NORTHERN IRELAND assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl has urged Kyle Lafferty to jump at the chance to join Hearts – and wrestle back his starting spot at international level.
The former Rangers ace has emerged as one of the Jambos’ top targets this summer following his release by Norwich, with head coach Ian Cathro keen to bolster their attacking options.
While an agreement is not thought to be imminent, sources close to the capital club yesterday indicated that Lafferty is a player on their radar and talks are expected to take place in the coming days.
The towering marksman also recently lost his place in the Northern Ireland starting line-up to Liam Boyce for encounters against New Zealand and Azerbaijan.
“The Hearts interest doesn’t surprise me at all – I’m sure there are a lot of clubs who would love to have Kyle on board,” the 61-year-old told Capital City Press.
“The most important thing for Northern Ireland, and Kyle himself, is that he finds a club quickly, starts getting games again and scores goals.
“He has found himself down the pecking order for Northern Ireland and I’m sure that is not where he wants to be.
“He needs to be careful that another summer doesn’t bypass him where he doesn’t find the right club.
“Our [Northern Ireland] squad is meeting up at the end of August for two vitally important games in September and he will need to be sharp and ready. We are trying to do something special and he will want to be a big part of that.
Lafferty, who was a talisman for Northern Ireland on the road to Euro 2016, is likely to have more lucrative offers than Hearts’ on the table, with Norwich’s Anglian rivals Ipswich Town among the clubs south of the border credited with an interest.
However, Nicholl believes he only needs to look as far as the man who has usurped him on the international stage, Boyce, for an example of how a return to Scotland could kickstart his career ahead of next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
“Michael O’Neill gave Kyle a platform when he wasn’t playing much football at all during qualification for the Euros,” continued the former Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath boss.
“That was his opportunity to show people what he could do and he certainly did that.
“But there comes a time when you need to be playing football every week. I think it would be a good move for Kyle if he went up to Hearts. He’s living up there and Hearts are a fantastic club.
“He’d be testing himself against Rangers and Celtic – playing, and hopefully scoring, against good players. If he does the business up there then I have no doubt that he would go right up in Michael’s thoughts.
“Liam Boyce has proved that if you are playing well and scoring goals in Scotland then you can grab the jersey, and now he has got his move to England on the back of that. Josh Magennis is another one who has done that.”
Hearts may also have a couple of aces up their sleeves in their bid to pull off a transfer coup in the form of assistant head coach Austin MacPhee and stalwart defender Aaron Hughes, both of whom are colleagues of Lafferty at international level.
Indeed, MacPhee, who is on O’Neill’s coaching staff, recently cited Lafferty as an example of the type of maverick talent the Jambos would be keen to recruit during a ‘meet the coaching staff’ seminar with supporters.
“Kyle obviously has financial commitments and he needs to look after himself and his family,” added Nicholl. “But I just want to see him playing football and doing well.
“Hearts really would fit the bill to give him that opportunity, in terms of the standard of opposition, platform and the people around him.”