Lafferty was branded an ‘out-of-control womaniser’ by Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini after leaving the Sicilian club in 2014, but, carefully handled by O’Neill, the 28-year-old has become a talisman for his country, replicating the exploits of David Healy in previous qualifying campaigns. The Northern Irish squad is a blend of wizened old pros and up-and-coming talent, the experience of stalwarts such as defenders Chris Baird (33) and Gareth McAuley (35) supplemented by the verve of players such as young Manchester United defender Paddy McNair (20) and 24-year-old midfielder Oliver Norwood. O’Neill’s man-management has also been a key factor, helping the former Newcastle United midfielder rouse his players to climb from 88th to 35th in the FIFA rankings. “There was a period when Michael went a number of games without a win, but he stuck with it and never gave up,” said Nigel Worthington, one of O’Neill’s predecessors.
I’ve written something on the stories behind and Wales and Northern Ireland’s successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaigns. You can read it here.