BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
KYLE LAFFERTY has been heralded as the new King of Hearts.
However, Jambos assistant Austin MacPhee knows better than most that the towering striker is more akin to the Joker in the pack.
From annexing a DJ booth in Finland to leaving travellers at Heathrow Airport fearing an avian invasion, MacPhee has seen Lafferty’s force of personality first-hand during his three years on the Northern Ireland coaching staff.
To suggest he will be a big character in the Tynecastle dressing room seems like something of an understatement.
“I’ve seen some things he’s done that are incredible,” smiles MacPhee. “He can do a brilliant seagull impression and we were in Heathrow and he was doing this really loud seagull noise and it was echoing around Terminal Five.
“He’s lying beside the carousel, hiding, so no-one could see him, while security are running about crazy looking for this rogue seagull.
“When we qualified against Finland, we were in a nightclub in Helsinki and I heard the DJ saying: ‘Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland, please calm down, please calm down’. Then, two minutes later, I heard ‘Party, party, party’. Kyle is in the DJ booth – he’s taken over.
“Probably the pick of the bunch was with Maik Taylor, our goalkeeping coach. He was in the shower but had left his door ajar. Kyle said to myself and Corry Evans ‘come in, come in’. Maik is naked, washing his face and can’t see. Kyle has crept right in, opened the shower door and let off this massive seagull noise.
“Can you imagine being stood there washing your face, thinking you’re the only person in the room, then hearing that? So this 6ft5in goalie decked it in the shower in panic!”
There is an almost paternal fondness when MacPhee recalls the japes of the 29-year-old.
Lafferty was usurped in the Northern Ireland starting line-up by former Ross County striker Liam Boyce for recent clashes against New Zealand and Azerbaijan; a timely wake-up call for a player who was irrepressible on the road to Euro 2016.
So, when considering why the former Rangers ace snubbed more lucrative options elsewhere, the answer is obvious to MacPhee.
“Northern Ireland last qualified for the World Cup in 1986 and [Northern Ireland assistant] Jimmy Nicholl still talks about it – and people still talk about Jimmy Nicholl,” continued MacPhee.
“If Northern Ireland win the next two games we’re guaranteed a play-off. Our games are San Marino and the Czech Republic. We would be three hours way from going to the 2018 World Cup.
“I said to him he could miss out and, when he’s 50, he’ll look back and say ‘I went to China or Azerbaijan for the money’. That’ll hurt more than the money can fix.”
Despite an often tumultuous club career, MacPhee has no doubt that Hearts have finally found the right man to shoulder the burden of the number nine jersey at Tynecastle, laughing off the notion that they have taken a risk by making Lafferty their top earner and de facto talisman.
“One thing I have learned about Hearts is the personality of players required,” added MacPhee. “The pressure of being Hearts number nine is one which requires ability and a big character.
“I’ve seen him in the heat of battle with Northern Ireland, I’ve seen him make good decisions and I think that’s who he is. Kyle has the talent, he just needs football. If he gets that and he’s happy he’ll score goals.
“Bringing him here, people are saying ‘Oh, it’s a risk’. Maybe other clubs don’t trust him the way I do.”