Lafferty was close to being substituted before scoring

Northern Ireland’s Kyle Lafferty (in green) alongside Hungary’s Zoltan Gera. Not even a knee injury could prevent his late equaliser on Monday, to give his side their first chance to seal a Euro berth.
Northern Ireland’s Kyle Lafferty (in green) alongside Hungary’s Zoltan Gera. Not even a knee injury could prevent his late equaliser on Monday, to give his side their first chance to seal a Euro berth.PHOTO: REUTERS

BELFAST - Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill revealed that he was close to substituting Kyle Lafferty before the forward struck a priceless late equaliser to keep his side within touching distance of an historic berth at Euro 2016.

Lafferty has not featured for Norwich so far this season due to a knee injury and was not yet fully fit.

But he helped the 10-man hosts rescue a 1-1 draw against Hungary on Monday with his seventh goal in eight qualifiers.

"We were taking Kyle off at 0-0 but by the time we were ready to make the change it was 1-0 and it suddenly changed," said O'Neill.

"Kyle hasn't played a single minute of club football this season, or in pre-season, and he was really struggling. We just felt he couldn't give us any more."

But, epitomising the tenacious spirit that has fuelled their unexpected Group F challenge, Lafferty scored from close range deep into stoppage time.

Northern Ireland could have secured a first-ever appearance at the European Championships with a victory at Windsor Park, but will be relieved to have avoided a potentially terminal defeat.

Their berth in next year's finals in France looked in jeopardy after Michael McGovern's failure to hold a routine free-kick allowed Richard Guzmics to put Hungary ahead with 16 minutes remaining.

To make matters worse for the Ulstermen, Chris Baird was sent off in the 81st minute for two cynical fouls in quick succession.

Northern Ireland have never qualified for the European Championships in 13 previous attempts, with even Manchester United legend George Best unable to lead his country to the continent's international showpiece. But Lafferty's strike at the end of a nerve-ridden night means his side will qualify for a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup if they beat lowly Greece at home in their next match on October 8.

"The fans came here for a party but the champagne is on ice," said Lafferty, who is suspended for the Greece clash after picking up a booking for a rash challenge on Monday. "We have two games left and we need one more push."

Placed among the fifth seeded minnows in the qualification draw, O'Neill's group leaders have defied all expectations and sit one point ahead of Romania and four ahead of Hungary with two games left.

"It was nerve-wracking to say the least," O'Neill said. "We dominated the first half but Hungary came into it. It was a mistake for the goal but then we saw true grit.

"It's a massive point for us. It wasn't vintage, but it was pure theatre."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2015, with the headline 'Lafferty was close to being substituted before scoring'. Print Edition | Subscribe