Sheffield United: When Daniel Lafferty met Toni Kroos
Daniel Lafferty would not wish to sound disrespectful.
After all, as his manager Chris Wilder frequently points out, there are no ‘gimme’ games in League One.
But, when you have pitted your wits against Toni Kroos and Arjen Robben, an FA Cup tie against divisional rivals Bolton Wanderers holds no fear at all.
“I’ve had two pretty big debuts for my country,” Lafferty, the Northern Ireland defender, remembers. “The first was against Germany for the under-21’s when I ended up marking a lad called Kroos. I think a few people have heard of him. The second, with the seniors, was in Holland when Robben was on my side of the pitch. It was bloody tough, let me tell you, and all I could do was try and keep him on his right foot rather than his left.”
Those chastening experiences in Wuppertal and Amsterdam proved to be, Lafferty now admits, defining moments in his career. The Sheffield United wing-back, on a season long loan from Championship club Burnley, acknowledges that being turned inside out by Kroos and tormented by Robben might not have been enjoyable at the time. But, looking back, they made him even more determined to improve himself and succeed.
“We sent a really young experimental side over the prepare for the next qualifying campaign with the under-21’s and I remember sitting in the dressing room looking at all these names. I don’t think I got within 10 yards of him all game. One of the first things he did was ping a 30 yard free kick into the top corner of the net. You just stood back, watched it go in and knew that this lad was going to be special, special player.
“Joking aside, that rammed home the type of levels you had to try and achieve if you wanted a career in the game. I think Sami Khedira, (Mesut) Ozil and (Mats) Hummels played in that one too.”
Lafferty, aged 27, started his career playing youth football with Oxford United Stars before joining Celtic in 2008. After two years at Parkhead - “I wasn’t enjoying my football anymore because I wasn’t really playing” - he returned home, quite literally, after being signed by hometown club Derry City. Although Lafferty arrived at a club beset by financial problems - the League of Ireland side had just been relegated to the First Division after accumulating crippling debts - a talented squad including West Bromwich Albion’s James McClean and Stephen McLaughlin, now of Southend, secured an immediate return back to the top-flight.
“I had to take a step backwards, as it were, to take two steps forward. But being around a club like that, being somewhere with that stature, was a wonderful education for me,” Lafferty says.
“I found out a fair bit about myself there (Derry). Coming from Celtic, it would have been easy to think ‘this is it, I’m not going to get back to that level again.’ But I knuckled down and we had a great season.”
“Going back home and playing for Derry was also hugely important in another way too,” he adds. “It made sure I’ve stayed humble and understand the importance of that. The facilities, as you can imagine, were nothing like Celtic. We’d get changed at the stadium and then drive for 15 minutes to train on a boggy park pitch. We’d go swimming at 9am in the morning for pre-season to stay fit. I’d always have stayed involved with football but I was ready for a life outside of it as well. But, if I hadn’t gone there at that time, then I might not have been where I am today.”
Although the early period of his career was shaped by struggle, Lafferty is reaping the benefits now. Going back to basics at Brandywell equipped him with the tenacious streak which persuaded Eddie Howe, then Burnley’s manager, to bring him to England five seasons ago before Wilder came calling earlier this term.
“I’m really enjoying myself at United,” Lafferty, who has been granted permission to appear in Sunday’s second round tie at the Macron Stadium, says. “Who knows what the future holds? I’m just taking things one game at a time and trying to achieve something here. Then the rest will take care of itself.”
Wilder’s decision to deploy Lafferty as a wing-back - a role he has performed sporadically but not exclusively since moving to England - has not only transformed his fortunes on the domestic stage but potentially, as he attempts to win back his place in Michael O’Neill’s squad, opened up fresh possibilities on the international front too. If so then Lafferty, who cites former Scotland and Celtic great Tommy Burns as one of his biggest influences, will be equally indebted to Wilder too.
“Tommy was in charge of the whole youth team set up when I was there,” he says. “What a wonderful man, in football and away from the game, he was. Tommy was a huge figure around the place. It didn’t matter if you were a first team player or a young youth team player, he showed you exactly the same courtesy and respect. Him and Willie McStay, who was the youth team coach, taught me so much and were huge parts of my career.”
“We all went to Tommy’s funeral after he died,” Lafferty adds. “Obviously he was a legend at Celtic but he’d been involved with Scotland too. The Rangers managers were all there, the amount of Rangers scarfs being laid told you all you needed to know about him, the respect and the esteem he was held in by everyone there.”