World Cup year is approaching. For Northern Ireland to reach Russia 2018, Michael O’Neill needs every eligible player fit and involved at club level. Moves to Hearts for striker Kyle Lafferty and right-back Michael Smith will aid his cause considerably.
O’Neill told the Evening News that both players would further their international prospects by joining the Edinburgh club. Lafferty has signed a two-year deal to join the club while Smith has held advanced talks at Tynecastle this week.
As national coach, O’Neill needs them and every other Northern Irishman functioning at a good level over the next 12 months. He wants to guide his country to back-to-back European Championship and World Cup finals for the first time in history, and says Hearts can help the international ambitions of Lafferty and Smith.
Lafferty’s three-year stint at Norwich City became a nightmare as he fell out of favour and was loaned out. He was eventually released last month. Notably, O’Neill stuck by the 29-year-old and kept him in the Northern Irish squad despite the lack of game time.
He played as a substitute in Azerbaijan earlier this month in a vital World Cup qualifying win. During the trip, the former Rangers forward discussed the prospect of returning to Scotland with his national coach.
Edinburgh-based O’Neill, speaking ahead of Lafferty sealing his move to Hearts, said: “I knew there were opportunities for him to come back to Scotland. It’s not for me to tell him where to play, but I told him the main thing is to go to a club that really values him.
“I’d speak to him regularly when he was at Norwich. He’d join up with us and you could see that, despite being on a good contract and earning good money, his frustration was at not playing. I said to him: ‘Look, there’s only so much we can do with you when you’re constantly not playing at club level.’
“He needs to happy in his personal life as well. I think coming back to Scotland would give him the stability he has been lacking. That would help him perform on the pitch.”
Hearts have agreed a transfer fee with Peterborough for 28-year-old Smith, who was also wanted by Coventry City. O’Neill explained why the step up would enhance his chances of adding to the solitary cap he won in March 2016. “In terms of his international career, coming to Hearts would help Michael,” he added.
“His challenge is to get in ahead of the players we have at right-back, like Conor McLaughlin and his younger brother Ryan. We have quite a bit of competition at right-back but Michael is someone we’ve always continued to watch, even though he wasn’t part of the squad in France.
“He’ll have more chance of pushing through and being part of our squad again if he’s playing at Hearts, as opposed to playing at Peterborough or his previous club Bristol Rovers. We have a number of players in League One in England so it didn’t hinder him playing at Peterborough. This could be a good move for him, though.”
The influence of Hearts’ assistant coach Austin MacPhee in these dealings cannot be underestimated. Day-to-day he coaches at Riccarton but he is also part of O’Neill’s backroom staff with Northern Ireland. He was pivotal to Aaron Hughes’ arrival in Gorgie in January and has played a similar role in discussions with Lafferty and Smith.
“I think Kyle just wants to knuckle down and get playing because he had a frustrating time at Norwich,” said O’Neill.
“I do have sympathy for him because he wasn’t given many opportunities to play. For one reason or another, chances weren’t given to him despite him playing well for us and scoring at international level.
“Kyle has never been out of my squad in the five years I’ve been in charge. He’s scored 20 goals in 61 caps, which is a good ratio at international level. He’s always going to be part of our squad because he gives us something different.
“It’s not just his size, he’s very athletic and he’s got great running power. Obviously, he knows where the net is. His goalscoring record at club level is good as well. It’s roughly one in three. Whoever does sign him and manages him properly will get a top player.
“He hasn’t been match fit because he hasn’t been playing. I had to manage him and decide whether to start him and take him off, or leave him until later and put him on as a sub. That’s pretty much how we’ve managed him throughout this qualifying campaign.
“Kyle will play to a good age because he’s naturally athletic. His lack of game time over the last three years might give him some extended time. He would be coming in just at the right time. He’s a young 29.
“Kyle has moved about a lot in his career but, if you asked him, he’d probably say he was happiest at Rangers. His second wife is from Scotland. He enjoyed playing in the top flight here and he was successful. Since leaving Rangers, he’s been in Switzerland, Italy, then back to Norwich and a loan spell in Turkey. He’s not been settled.”
Lafferty carries much the higher profile of Hearts’ two targets. Smith would be stepping up to the Scottish Premiership from England’s League One. O’Neill insists it is a jump he can handle.
“Michael is a quick and plays as a good attacking full-back. His strengths are probably more going forward,” he explained. “I think that’s the strongest part of his game. Hearts will get him at a good age, too.
“I think he’s more than good enough to play in Scotland and he’s coming to a good club. Hearts is probably the biggest club he’ll have had. I think it’s a good move for him if it comes to fruition. He’s a really good type with a good attitude who trains well and wants to do well.
“Michael came across from the Irish League years ago  and joined Bristol Rovers. He played a lot of games there and then they dropped out of League Two. Michael left and went to Peterborough, where he did well. We watched him there when they were pushing for the League One play-offs and he came into our squad in the run-up to the Euros last summer.
“He was probably just a bit late arriving to stake a claim for a place in France. We had Conor McLaughlin ahead of him, Aaron [Hughes] has played right-back for us, and Lee Hodson was there as well. There was plenty competition in his position.”
Competition is exactly what O’Neill wants as Northern Ireland strive to secure a historic place in Russia. Hearts will have a key supporting role to play.