DEAN Shiels last night expressed confidence his friend and former team mate Kyle Lafferty will continue to make himself available for Northern Ireland in future - despite his country effectively banning him from playing for Rangers this weekend.

Michael O’Neill was upset when Lafferty pulled out of his squad for the Nations League matches against Austria and Bosnia with an Achilles injury just hours before they were due to meet up last week.

The Irish Football Association has since invoked a FIFA clause that prevents the striker from playing within five days of the international window - meaning the striker will be unavailable for the Ladbrokes Premiership match against Hamilton on Sunday.

The bizarre episode has led to suggestions that Lafferty, who was delighted when he sealed a return to Ibrox back in August, may choose to retire from international football.

The 6ft 4in forward, who became a national hero when his goals fired his homeland to the Euro 2016 finals in France, turned 31, an age when many footballers decide to focus solely on the club game in order to prolong their careers, last month.

Yet Shiels, the former Rangers midfielder who played alongside his compatriot in their national team, is optimistic the 68-times capped target man will still be involved when Northern Ireland get their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign underway next year.

“I know Kyle,” he said. “I grew up with him and played with him with Northern Ireland. He loves his country. I think he will return.

“Kyle will tell you himself that for a lot of years, when he was going from club to club, he played his best football for Northern Ireland. He won’t turn his back on that lightly. I hope he does come back. We certainly need him. We haven’t got an abundance of players in his position.

“Kyle is a great lad. I know from speaking to him that he is delighted to have got his move back to Rangers. But I think Kyle will be happy to be playing for Northern Ireland and Rangers because he loves both of them.

“Kyle loves Rangers, that’s for sure. He was over the moon to get his move back and he’s hit the ground running as well. But I played with Kyle for Northern Ireland and I know he was very proud to play for his country too.

“I don’t think he’ll give that up just to concentrate on Rangers. He is patriotic. I know some players do retire from international football to concentrate on playing club football, but I can’t see Kyle doing that. He has got a lot still to offer.

“A lot of those players weren’t performing regularly for their country and didn’t want to turn up just to make up the numbers. But Kyle is the top scorer in the squad by quite a considerable distance.”

Northern Ireland lost to both Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina away last week without their first-choice centre forward and have been relegated to Group C of the Nations League as a result.

“We definitely need Kyle,” said Shiels. “If you look around the squad there are goals there. But Kyle has got a lot more than the rest (he has netted 20 times since making his debut in 2006). You take him away and you are losing a lot.

“We failed to score in the games against Austria and Bosnia there. We missed him, that was obvious. As a Northern Ireland fan, I hope they can resolve their issues.”

Rangers released a statement on their official website yesterday saying they understood the IFA position on Lafferty following discussions and stressing that the player remained available for international selection.

O’Neill is set to hold further talks with both Lafferty and his club manager Steven Gerrard in the coming days.

Shiels, who is now playing under his father Kenny at League of Ireland Premier Division club Derry City, is confident the man who turned down the chance to take over at Scotland earlier this year will be able to smooth over what he concedes has become a “messy” affair.

“I know Michael too,” he said. “He is a great manager and a great man manager. One of Michael’s qualities is he’s close with his players. He is someone who talks with his players. He has a good relationship with players. I am sure the two of them can resolve something.

“I know Kyle as well. I know he has had personal issues and stuff. But I know he has a good relationship with Michael. As I say, Michael is brilliant with his players, is easy to talk to. That is one of his strong points.

“I am sure Michael is disappointed with what has happened. It is between him and Kyle. I hope they can sort it out it for the good of Northern Ireland. I don’t know the reasons behind what happened. It’s becoming a bit messy.

“It isn’t good for Rangers either. They want him playing. It isn’t good for Northern Ireland either. It isn’t good for either of them. They are both suffering because of this.”