Michael O'Neill plays down absence of Kyle Lafferty ahead of NI's Austrian test
Uefa Nations League B, Group 3: Austria v Northern Ireland (Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna, 7.45pm Irish time tonight)
‘KYLE who?’ was the question at the start of the week and that remained the attitude of Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill ahead of tonight’s return to competitive action.
The puzzlement initially surrounded the latest call-up to the squad, Kyle Vassell, but the big talking point has become the absence of Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty, who ‘made himself unavailable’ in a midnight call on Sunday.
O’Neill was clearly annoyed about that decision and its timing – and also by Oxford United manager Karl Robinson querying the inclusion of Gavin Whyte.
A remark about the latter could clearly be construed as a comment for Lafferty’s ears too: “To be an international player you have to turn up and play. Gavin is delighted to be here, so I think Karl should maybe think before he speaks.”
O’Neill also pointedly said of Lafferty that “he's no more important than any of the other 23 players we have here either.”
At one time that would have been a laughable statement about the man whose goals took NI to Euro 2016 – but the lanky forward’s last international strike came almost two years ago, in November 2016 at home to Azerbaijan.
However, O’Neill hasn’t signalled an end to Lafferty’s international involvement, insisting: “There hasn’t been a fall-out. The only people talking about a fall-out is the media and that’s because it’s what they want to write.
“I haven’t thought about what happens next. International football is a choice and at this moment in time Kyle Lafferty has chosen to make himself unavailable…
“Of course he will get his chance to decide his future - unless he decides to retire from international football.”
Still, he added that it was "not the case that his international career is hanging in the balance" but admitted that Lafferty "certainly hasn't helped his international future."
He also indicated that the withdrawal was injury-related, claiming that the reason “was pretty clear and it has been documented in the numerous articles that have written.
“He's had an Achilles problem, we knew he had an Achilles problem in September and, as I say, he felt it was in his best interests he didn't travel because it would give him the opportunity to stay off the Achilles and that was his reason for withdrawing from the squad.”
Yet O’Neill’s face – terse and tense – told more of a story, as he said: “I don't plan to have a chat [with Kyle] before the game. Certainly not my intention before the game. My focus since the conversation has really been preparing the team.
“We'll not play another international until November – so there's plenty of time to have that discussion. At the end of the day, the player has made himself unavailable, so we concentrate on the squad we have here.”
In another pointed remark, he later added: “There’s no guarantee that Kyle was going to come and play, that’s the reality of the situation. We’ve got other strikers available to play.”
Conor Washington isn’t one of them, absent due to family reasons, nor Jamie Ward (lacking match fitness), but Vassell is, although he’s unlikely to start ahead of Josh Magennis or Will Grigg.
The visitors are likely to need at least one goal to avoid defeat given Austria’s eye-catching results this calendar year under new boss Franco Foda, including wins over neighbours Germany, plus Russia, and Sweden.
Indeed they’ve only suffered one home defeat in their last 11 games – by Brazil (3-0) just before the World Cup, and have won eight of their last 10 games.
The other defeat did come last time out, though, 1-0 to Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are now in pole position in this group with a maximum six points after their fortunate 2-1 victory in the opener in Belfast.
O’Neill is hoping that past pleasures lead to an enjoyable outcome tonight, with the visitors having training at the same spa resort where they went before Euro 2016 and before the draw in the Czech Republic last year:
“We've prepared the team with 23 or 24 players we have available at this moment in time so the focus has been with the players here, who have prepared extremely well for the last three days and we've had three great days in Tatzmannsdorf and we're looking forward and ready for the game.”
He and NI also have fairly good memories of playing in Austria, including a spectacular Keith Gillespie winner in Vienna and two goals for O’Neill himself in the home game in the Euro 1996 qualifiers:
“Over the years we’ve performed well against Austria. It was a highlight to come here and win the game 2-1.
“We obviously denied Austria the chance to possibly go to Euro ’96 when we beat them in Belfast 5-3, so if we can have a similar level of performance and something similar in terms of the result, we’d be delighted with that.
“I’ll not be coming on but…”, he quipped.
After all the confusion over the format of this new competition, and the debates over its worth, Northern Ireland know that they have little room for error now.
Arguably victory in Sarajevo on Monday is more important than here in Vienna, but defeat would surely end hopes of promotion to League A – and increase fears of the drop down to the third tier.
Even without Lafferty, Washington, Ward, and the injured Niall McGinn, O’Neill is likely to continue the more attacking approach of recent games, likely meaning a first competitive start for Jordan Jones on the right wing.
Changes at the back probably contributed to the goals conceded at home to Bosnia: new keeper, new left-back, new centre-back pairing, even if the latter consisted of familiar and experienced faces in Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans. There’s likely to be a ‘new’ right-back too tonight, but at least Paddy McNair impressed there against Israel.
Perhaps the new Kyle will become the new hero – and the question will become ‘Lafferty who?’
Northern Ireland (probable): Peacock-Farrell; McNair, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; Norwood, Saville, Davis (capt.); Jones, Magennis, Dallas.