The Northern Irish striker has returned with his sights set on igniting another fan base en route to Serie A promotion
The Straight of Messina and a mere 250 kilometers are all that separate the cities of Palermo and Reggio Calabria at the foot of the Italian Peninsula, but they couldn’t be farther apart when viewed along the career trajectory of Kyle Lafferty. While the Northern Irish striker’s stint in the famous pink and black of U.S. Città di Palermo may have come to an unceremonious end, he has returned to Italian football with his sights set on being the catalyst for a second promotion to the bright lights of Serie A.
After clawing their way back up from the fourth tier following bankruptcy, Reggina 1914, the pride and joy of port city Reggio Calabria, have wasted no time in signaling their intentions of causing a stir in their return to Serie B. Former Milan and Roma star Jérémy Ménez was the first big name to join the club in the offseason, and now it’s Lafferty who will be donning the Amaranto jersey under hometown manager Domenico Toscano.
During Lafferty’s first stint in Italy, Palermo also had now-widely recognizable names in the squad, including Andrea Belotti, Abel Hernández and Paulo Dybala. But it was the towering striker from the southwest corner of Northern Ireland who was ultimately deemed the Fans’ Player of the Year at the conclusion of the 2013–14 campaign. With 11 league goals to his name in 34 appearances, Lafferty finished second in the Palermo scoring chart behind Hernández (14). A double-digit goal tally is a commendable feat on its own, but it was through the intangibles of the game — strong work ethic, never-say-say attitude, exuberant celebrations with teammates and fans — and his penchant for goals in pivotal moments that really endeared Lafferty to the Rosanero faithful. An imposing figure at 6’4”, Lafferty combined his large frame with tireless effort, intelligent movement, and versatility to consistently menace opposing back lines.
Former Palermo chairman Maurizio Zamparini has never been one to mince words and he certainly had no qualms about cycling through managers at an astounding rate. Nevertheless, what the club did get right time and time again under his direction was the identification of talent. The eye-catching list of players to come through includes the likes of the aforementioned teammates of Lafferty, as well as Edinson Cavani, Javier Pastore, Andrea Barzagli, Luca Toni, Josip Ilicic, and Salvatore Sirigu, among others. The list truly goes on and on.
He may not have been the most rousing of signings to some Palermo supporters, but Zamparini saw potential in Lafferty and it was ultimately that instinctive gamble that paid dividends in helping the club achieve promotion. “He is someone who can lead the attack by himself, similar to Luca Toni,” the boss confidently declared. High praise indeed to draw comparisons to a man who would become one of Italy’s most prolific strikers of all time. Lafferty also benefitted from having played for Swiss outfit Sion alongside Gennaro Gattuso, who was unveiled as Head Coach only a week before his arrival.
Lafferty got off the mark in his first appearance in a Coppa Italia win against Cremonese, but it took four matches into the season after spending some time on the bench to record his opening goal in Serie B play. He found himself as a substitute once again, but Gatttuso elected to make an attack-minded switch by taking off midfielder Davide Di Gennaro in the 55th minute with Lafferty as his sanguine replacement. With his side facing a deficit 30 minutes from the final whistle, the center forward confidently stepped up and rippled the net with a pinpoint free kick to level the score at 1–1 before Hernández eventually fired home the winner. He and the rest of the squad would then have to deal with Gattuso’s dismissal in late September and a new project under replacement Beppe Iachini, but Lafferty would go on to rediscover his scoring touch in November and build momentum in subsequent weeks.
With a staggering points tally of 86, a Serie B record that Benevento recently equaled but has yet to be topped, the Rosanero rarely experienced winless runs under Iachini’s direction. However, the turn of the year and its typical drop in temperatures managed to find its way into Palermo’s form. With just one wins through five matches in the months of January and February, the team desperately needed to click back into gear and go on a tear to distance themselves from the pack.
The tapestry that Iachini’s men would go on to weave from the first day of March onwards was nothing short of remarkable. Locked in a scoreless stalemate with a stubborn Bari side, Lafferty rose into the heavens to meet a cross at the far post and head home to open the scoring with a half hour to play. Bari quickly equalized with a stunning goal of their own, but Dybala would go on to find the winner in a 2–1 result. The Northern Irishman’s quintessential center forward play and finish proved to ignite a blistering run for Palermo; they rattled off 11 wins and a pair of draws in the subsequent 13 fixtures to virtually etch their names into the history books.
An additional moment of brilliance came in mid April in an away match against Trapani. The hosts consistently frustrated Palermo and kept them off the scoresheet for just over two thirds of an affair poised on a knife-edge, but it was a composed touch and cross-goal finish by Lafferty in the 63rd minute that proved decisive and sent the traveling support into delirium.
Despite his production and widespread admiration from Palermo supporters, including a nickname in reference to popular comic Dylan Dog, Lafferty’s Italian adventure came to an undignified end and he was never allowed the opportunity to experience life in the top flight. Zamparini threw himself and Lafferty into the headlines when he accused his marksman on Italian radio of being a “womaniser” and “an Irishman without rules”, among other inflammatory comments on his life away from the pitch and difficulties posed to Iachini. Not exactly words that point toward any sort of collaboration moving forward, and that was indeed the case as Lafferty departed for Norwich City not long thereafter.
Since his time in pink and black he has suited up for no less than seven different teams, with his most successful spell coming at Heart of Midlothian in 2017–18 on the heels of a national team rebirth under manager Martin O’Neill. However, it was during that same period in Scotland that Lafferty first revealed his struggle with a gambling addiction and its harmful impact on his life. In 2018 , Lafferty fully opened up about the battle with his demons in the hopes that he could help others facing the same obstacle.
In the midst of a brief return to Rangers and then a largely unsuccessful spell in Norway, daydreams of his prosperity in Serie B would have been a natural way to both reminisce and try to reignite the potential of a talented footballer. In a 2019 interview with fan website ILovePalermoCalcio, Lafferty divulged his unwavering affection for the club that has been in constant turmoil since his departure, while also admitting it was never his decision to leave in the first place.
“In the summer of 2014 I went away against my will because in Palermo I was fine and it was Zamparini and Iachini who sent me away. Being called a womaniser is not the best, but I will thank Zamparini anyway for introducing me to Sicily.”
A return to Palermo has obviously not come to fruition, but he is no less determined to make his mark by adding to the reputation he built during his short stay in Sicily. It is with that same hunger and relentless industry on the front line that he’ll be able to prove himself a worthwhile signing for Reggina.
“Everyone will know from my time at Palermo, I’m a fighter and I will do everything I can to get this team into Serie A,” Lafferty boldly declared at his press reveal. “I’m a team player, and I will fight to the end. It will take a serious injury to get me off the field. I’ll never throw in the towel and I’ll always wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Now, with stints in England, Turkey, Scotland, and Norway under his belt since his fallout at Palermo, Lafferty is tasked with leading another charge to secure promotion to the pinnacle of Italian football. At 32 years of age and armed with an insatiable desire to prove his worth, the Enniskillen native just might capture the imaginations of fans once again in the warm sun of southern Italy.
Words by Wesley Davidson: @wesleyndavidson