Kyle Lafferty cannot get a game in the Championship for Norwich City yet he cannot stop scoring for Northern Ireland in the European Championship qualifiers.
Sent on loan to Turkish club Rizespor at the end of January, Lafferty yesterday scored for the fourth and fifth time in Euro 2016 qualification. His goals may take Michael O’Neill’s maturing team all the way to France next summer.
Lafferty, who got two in five first-half minutes, is now second in Northern Ireland’s list of all-time goalscorers with 14. Only David Healy has more.
More significantly, Northern Ireland have 12 points and O’Neill’s calculation has long been that 18 should be enough to qualify for the finals for the first time.
There was a late scare when the Finland substitute Berat Sadik stabbed a shot past Roy Carroll in injury time but a Finnish equaliser was not deserved and it never came.
“I’m delighted,” said O’Neill, whose side are second in their group behind Romania, the visitors to Windsor Park in June. “In difficult conditions there were a lot of good performances and Kyle was outstanding.
“Romania in June becomes massive for us now because if we win it’d be hard for the players to think they wouldn’t make it [to France].”
On a wind-battered afternoon, the Irish half-time lead was admirable because, on an occasion of unquestionable tension, O’Neill’s players could have been frustrated by a disallowed ninth-minute goal from Chris Baird.
Finland were competitive then. Teemu Pukki had forced Carroll into a sharp save at his near post and Conor McLaughlin cleared off his own line.
But with Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood settling in midfield, McLaughlin and Jamie Ward began to have some success on the right. On 28 minutes, pressure from Niall McGinn caused a Finnish defensive error and Ward should have scored. Lukas Hradecky made a decent save.
Five minutes later Lafferty was fouled on the Irish right. Norwood delivered a fast, curling free-kick. It was headed half-clear, McGinn got to the loose ball first and his header back in was met on the volley by Lafferty. From 12 yards Lafferty’s shot flew diagonally past Hradecky.
Windsor Park’s delight was doubled five minutes later. Again the goal came from the Irish right. Ward appeared to stumble but he recovered to find McLaughlin, whose excellent cross was flicked into the same corner as his previous volley by Lafferty.
Davis, the hugely influential captain, did not reappear after the interval. Jonny Evans’ brother Corry came on and, like everyone else in green, watched as Finland substitute Joel Pohjanpalo almost made it 2-1 in the 53rd minute.
That was during a period of sustained pressure and the Irish were being pressed back as earlier intensity faded.
Lafferty departed to an ovation and while the joyous mood turned nervy when Sadik rammed in that late Finnish goal, delight soon returned as they sang, in reference to this first international here on a Sunday: “We’re supposed to be in church.”