BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
HEARTS stole a march on city rivals Hibernian by snapping up Kyle Lafferty on a two-year deal as the towering striker vowed to use his move to Tynecastle as a springboard to the World Cup.
The former Rangers star finally completed his switch to the capital club on Wednesday evening following four days of protracted talks with Jambos chiefs.
Hibs were keen to hijack the deal at the eleventh hour, with Easter Road boss Neil Lennon hopeful that his compatriot would report to their East Mains training base for talks in the afternoon before committing to Hearts.
However, Lennon was left disappointed as Lafferty chose to remain at Tynecastle throughout the day to finalise a deal which makes him the highest paid player at the club – and, in the words of head coach Ian Cathro, “the focal point” of their new-look side.
And the Northern Ireland talisman – who boasts 20 goals from 62 caps – revealed that his desire to lead the line for his country on the road to Russia was foremost in his mind when he agreed to return to Scotland, having recently lost his starting berth to Liam Boyce.
Hearts assistant head coach Austin MacPhee is one of Lafferty’s coaches at international level, while he will link-up with 106-times capped Aaron Hughes in Gorgie. Northern Ireland manager Michel O’Neill has also given a public seal of approval to the move.
“Austin [MacPhee] has been at my ear for the last four-to-six months!” smiled Lafferty. “He played a massive part in me coming here.
“I wanted to come somewhere that I knew I would play first-team football. I have a very important year ahead of me. I want to get to the World Cup with Northern Ireland, so it is important I am playing – and I’ve been told I’ll be the main focal point of the Hearts team.
“Over the last two or three years, I’ve thrived when that has been the case and have produced the goods.
“Michael O’Neill has turned my career around. I went from being the class clown to a recognised striker that can score goals at that level.
“In the last campaign I played a massive part in getting my country to Euro 2016 and I just want to kick on from that.”
Lafferty, who started his career with Burnley, is no stranger to Hearts after starring against the Jambos during his four years as a Rangers player, notching six goals against his new club.
He departed Ibrox in 2012 following the Gers’ financial collapse and went on to turn out for Sion and Palermo before joining Norwich in 2014. The switch to the Canaries proved ill-fated, with the 29-year-old starting 22 games in three years and being farmed out on loan to Birmingham and Caykur Rizespor.
Nevertheless, Lafferty says he is returning north of the border a superior striker than the won who left Rangers.
“It’s been a long time since I last played in Scotland but I think I am more mature, more experienced and a better player than I was five years ago,” Lafferty told Hearts TV.
“I am excited to get going – and I know that if I perform how I can then the fans, and myself, will be happy at the end of it.
“I came here on numerous occasions to play against Hearts – and it was always a place I hated coming because the fans are so passionate about their team. I’m excited to be on the same side as them now!”
Lafferty becomes Hearts’ fourth summer signing following Christophe Berra, Rafal Grzelak and Cole Stockton, with the club hopeful of adding defender Michael Smith and Manchester City youngster Ashley Smith-Brown to their ranks before jetting out for a pre-season training camp in Ireland next Monday.
And Hearts owner Ann Budge, who pushed the boat out to capture Lafferty, added: “We are absolutely delighted that Kyle is joining us. From our first meeting there was a clear willingness and desire to make this deal happen on both sides.”