Kyle Lafferty believes he has found the perfect environment to finally start replicating his stunning international form at club level.
There have been two distinct versions of Hearts’ much-hyped new striker over the past three years: the one who can’t stop scoring for Northern Ireland, and the one who has struggled to command regular game time at Norwich City.
Since joining the Canaries from Palermo in summer 2014, 11 of Lafferty’s 19 goals (60 per cent) have come for his country. He put this anomaly down to the invigorating effect of Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and his backroom staff, which includes Austin MacPhee, the Hearts assistant.
Lafferty hasn’t felt the same sense of worth and warmth at Norwich – who twice farmed him out on loan – but after in-depth talks with MacPhee, head coach Ian Cathro and owner Ann Budge over the past week, he senses that he is viewed by Hearts management as a key man rather than a bit-part player. He is confident this will manifest itself in the form of the type of swashbuckling performances he has regularly produced for Northern Ireland during their remarkable upsurge in recent years.
“With the national team, I am in a place where everyone believes in me and I have responded with good performances and goals,” said Lafferty. “Michael O’Neill has made me the main man in the squad over the past few years and it has helped me. After being sent off against Portugal four years ago, it was one of the low points of my international career. There were a lot of bad things said about me and Michael gave me a few phone calls to help me through it. In the next meeting, he pulled me into his office – Austin was there as well – and they produced stats saying I’d managed more yellow cards than goals. I was embarrassed. But Michael has always been there for me – I can ring him anytime. He gives me a lot of belief and has put massive trust in me to lead the line for my country.
“The way he is with me gave me a good feeling and extra motivation to go out and score goals for the team and put a smile on his face. To make me feel like that, I wanted to repay him with goals and results and I think that’s what I did with the national team. The gaffer here has started off the same way. I don’t know if he spoke to Michael about how to man-manage me but we clicked from day one. It’s not always been about football, it’s been a bit of banter as well, which everyone knows I enjoy. I’m here to play football and to have a manager that has trust in me – it’s a good feeling.
“He’s been showing my videos over the last few days of my goals, me scoring and playing well for Northern Ireland with a smile on my face and that’s all he wants. He says that if I produce that same smile for Hearts then I would be happy and laughing because it would be a good outcome.
“I’ve never had that before, a manager showing me videos of myself, but knowing Austin, he’ll have been behind that as well. He used to pull me in before Northern Ireland games or email me my goals from Northern Ireland two hours before I played a game. It’s a good feeling watching them and reminding yourself what you can do before a game. I know the gaffer’s put in a lot of effort to get me here and the things he’s said makes me want to go out and score 20-25 goals for him. He wants me to be the No.9 and he believes in me and I want to repay his trust with goals and results.”
Lafferty is hopeful of enjoying the same sense of harmony with Hearts that he enjoyed at Palermo when he scored 11 goals in the 2013/14 season to help the Italian club win promotion from Serie B.
“That was the last time I had a proper crack of the whip at club level,” he said. “I loved it there. The fans took to me early doors because I don’t think they’d seen a player who ran so much. I might have been running around like a headless chicken but I was still putting in a shift for the team. I liked their fans and they took to me. I had a great relationship with the club and had an impressive year with them and played a part in getting them promoted. Obviously then I went to Norwich, which I thought was a dream move at the time but it turned sour for me. It’s been a tough two-and-a-half years at club level but I’m raring to go now. I feel like a 19-year-old going into my first pre-season and I can’t wait to get started.”
Lafferty is relishing the prospect of running out at the newly-redeveloped Tynecastle for the first time in a maroon jersey after admitting the hostile Gorgie ground was an unwelcoming place to visit as a Rangers player. “My Tynecastle memories are absolutely awful,” he said. “I always thought: ‘Oh Christ, I think I will have a sore hamstring that week.’ It’s an awful place for an opposition team to play. I remember scoring a free-kick and making it 1-1 and I made the mistake of running too close to the Hearts fans. I was pelted with bottles, coins, everything.
“It was a terrible place to come and try and play football even with 17,000 people here, so an extra 3000 people will make it even worse for away teams. To have those fans right behind you is going to push the team. I can’t wait for the first home game of the season to hear them in full voice.”
Lafferty knows there is a negative perception of him in Scotland, stemming from his four years at Rangers. While he acknowledges he made mistakes in the past, he insists he is no hell-raiser and never has been. He is eager to use his time at Hearts to ensure he is remembered in this country only for his football ability.
“When I was at Rangers I was out on the town maybe 10-15 times,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ve done to paint myself as the partygoer. One pint and I am drunk, so I don’t know where that comes from. I’d rather have a glass of red wine in the house and watch a movie. Don’t get me wrong, everyone lets their hair down from time to time, but there’s a time and a place and I think helping Hearts lift a cup will be one of those times. It’s just perception. I’m not going to say I won’t be out once or twice so if you do see me don’t think I am a liar!
“I’m joining a top team in Scotland and I’ve got a chance to put things right. Not many people get a chance to put things right. I’m at Hearts to prove people wrong.”
Lafferty explained that, in addition to Hibs, he snubbed other more lucrative offers from further afield. “I had a lot of options,” he said. “I was surprised by the number of clubs that were interested in me. I could have made a lot more money going abroad, but my house is here, my family are here and there are good football reasons too. It felt right. I want to get playing football, scoring goals and being happy again. If I come here and score 20-25 goals, win a bit of silverware and take my country to the World Cup, then it could be one of the best years of my career.”