Being Kyle Lafferty often means a high price in aggression. Hearts’ new striker glanced the winning goal on his debut in Elgin on Tuesday night almost to prove how he thrives under pressure.
As if Lafferty’s profile in Scotland wasn’t high enough from his time at Rangers, he joined Hearts after snubbing Hibs’ attempts to sign him. Once you’ve upset the west of Scotland, why not try the east? Of course, he didn’t intend it that way but the 29-year-old knows he is very much public property.
Elgin’s attempts to shackle him were frequently physical and Lafferty was prepared for the challenge in Moray. His lanky frame is complemented by a decent touch and body strength. Then there’s the aerial ability which saw him head home Rafal Grzelak’s cross on the hour mark to decide Tuesday’s Betfred League Cup tie.
A goal on your competitive debut for a new club is the perfect start for any striker. Lafferty expects to be a target for defenders across Scotland this season and is relaxed about how he will cope with the attention.
“Over the last few years, I’ve probably thrived on being singled out and being a marked man,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I honestly can’t wait to play against the likes of Celtic, Rangers and in the Edinburgh derby.
“I don’t really bother what the style of play is. Hearts did a lot of work to get me here and they’ve put a lot of faith in me. The only way I can repay them is by doing what I did the other night – come up with the winning goal in a tough game. If I keep on doing that, I’ll answer all my critics.
“Scoring my first goal for any club is important and it’s a good feeling. I would’ve liked to get a couple more but the important thing was getting a win to start the season. For myself, it was nice to get off the mark and I enjoyed getting the goal. We knew it would be a tough game up there and it turned out it was tougher than we expected.”
Lafferty is used to being part of a team everyone wants to beat. That means developing a mentality to handle even the most brutal approach. It served him and his new team well as Hearts started their Betfred League Cup Group B campaign with a hard-earned win.
“Elgin definitely put themselves about. I think that’s part and parcel of football,” he continued. “Whenever teams in lower leagues come up against the bigger teams, it’s always difficult. They want to test themselves against better opposition.
“We found it tough but we found our rhythm the longer the game went on and got the three points.
“Playing for one of the big two in Scotland, you’re used to being everyone’s cup final. Coming to Hearts, everyone wants to beat Hearts as well. We’re the third-best team in the league so I think everyone will want to go out and prove that they can turn up and beat the likes of Hearts.
“We have to treat each game in the right manner. These League Cup games are coming quite early. It’s like a pre-season game, to be honest. We’ve only been back three to four weeks and we’re still trying to get fit, get used to individuals and get playing as a team.”
We’re taking these games as seriously as possible. We want the points to progress from the group and to help us get ready for the start of the season. Everyone expects us to go out and wipe the floor with these teams but it’s still early.”
Lafferty celebrated his winner like a player who looked content and happy in his surroundings. The furore of his arrival in Gorgie has died down, but only slightly. Leaving Hibs in the lurch after promising to meet manager Neil Lennon for contract talks made him public enemy No.1 in Leith. He isn’t overly flustered.
“I just want to play football now. I spoke to Hearts as soon as I came back from my holiday in June. On my first day back in Scotland, I went to talk to them. It went on longer than I expected,” he explained.
“I showed them respect. Obviously, there were other things which I said I was going to do. It turned out that I negotiated something with Hearts which was right for both of us.
“It would’ve been disrespectful to Hearts, the fans and people at the club who I’d spoken to for four days solid if I’d gone elsewhere to speak to another club. We were so close to getting the deal over the line.
“Football is football and you just have to move on. I thought it would’ve been put to bed by now but people are going to keep on talking about it. I joined the right club. The lads, the manager and the coaching staff have been brilliant. Even people on the board have all been excellent. They know this club can go places. I’m glad I’m a Hearts player.
“They understood I had other options when we were talking. If we didn’t come to an agreement, I was clubless so I had to go elsewhere. From the first moment I went into the club and met Ann [Budge], Craig [Levein], the gaffer [Ian Cathro] and Austin [MacPhee] again, I had a good feeling.”
Standing on the Tynecastle pitch that June evening, Lafferty watched the ongoing construction of the ground’s new main stand. Furnishing it with a trophy became his top priority, hence his desire to shine in the Betfred Cup.
“I went out on the pitch and saw the new stand being built,” he recalled. “The feeling of being the first team to put a bit of silverware in that new stand, it’s what every player in the Hearts team wants. With this squad of players, I think we can do that.
“It’s going to be an exciting season for us. Hopefully, come the end of it, we’ll be where we want to be.”
Before then, he will have to confront Hibs and their supporters in the Edinburgh derbies. That thick skin and strong mentality will again be called upon.
“I’m sure I’ll get a good reception from the Hibs fans whenever we play them,” smiled the forward. “It’s a derby, I’ve played in massive derbies before and come through them. Sometimes I’ve come through them happy, sometimes disappointed, but that’s football. You pick yourself up and move on.”