David Healy – The Ulsterman who outscored Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry and Andriy Shevchenko in Euro 2008 qualifying

Say the name David Healy to most football fans and they won’t bat an eyelid. Ardent followers of the English Championship may remember a productive striker with a respectable goal return for Preston North End and Leeds, alongside less memorable loan spells with Norwich City, Port Vale, Ipswich Town and Doncaster Rovers.

Fulham and Sunderland fans may remember a striker who never cut it in the Premier League. Fans of Bury and Rangers could be forgiven for asking ‘Who?’ so unmemorable was his time at both sides. But, in Northern Ireland, the name David Healy has almost immortal status.

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Born in the small Northern-Irish village of Killyleagh, David Healy first began playing football with his local village side before moving on to another local team, Lisburn Youth. Before long, his talents were recognised by Manchester United and he was being courted by Alex Ferguson from the age of 12. He eventually signed for The Red Devils shortly before his 20th birthday in August 1999.

Sadly for Healy, it would never quite happen for him in Manchester. He only managed three goalless appearances for United, before signing for Preston North End for what was then a club-record fee of £1.5 million in December 2000.

Despite his failure to break through at United, the young Ulsterman was already showing glimpses of the almost supernatural ability he seemed to inherit when wearing the shamrock green of his national side. He made an instant impact in his first appearance for Northern Ireland, scoring twice against Luxembourg at the age of 20. Ten weeks before making his Premier League debut for Manchester United, Healy played against Denmark in a World Cup qualifier, pummelling a rasping 30-yard effort past the legendary Peter Schmeichel, who before the game claimed he ‘couldn’t remember’ Healy from his time in Manchester.

David Healy’s time at Preston North End coincided with a sharp decline in the fortunes of Northern Irish football. By the time a friendly against Norway rolled around on the 18th February 2004, the national team had gone a remarkable 1,298 minutes without a goal, hadn’t won a game for nearly three years and were ranked 124th in the world.

It was hoped the game against Norway would be a turning point. Former Wimbledon midfielder Lawrie Sanchez was the man tasked with guiding Northern Irish football out of the wilderness, taking charge of the team for the first time following the resignation of Sammy McIlroy. Healy had struggled in the lone striker role deployed by McIlroy and was hoping for a rejuvenation. Rejuvenated Healy would prove to be, heading home from a Keith Gillespie cross, and ending a two-year goal famine.

Healy’s effort against the Norwegians was his ninth for his country, and he would follow this up with a winner against Estonia the following month, the men in greens’ first victory in 16 games. Fast forward to the summer of 2004 and Healy was netting for his country again against Trinidad & Tobago, making him Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer.

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Northern Ireland looked like a respectable international side once again and Healy was thriving under Sanchez. A number of teams were impressed with his international performances, but it was Leeds United who would eventually obtain his services from Preston for a fee of £650,000 in October 2004.

Despite joining Leeds when they were in a well-documented muddle on and off the pitch, Healy would go on to finish as the clubs’ joint top goal-scorer in each of his three seasons there, coming within a play-off final of Premiership football. His form for Leeds gained attention from Premier League sides, but his glorifying moment in the green and white of his nation was yet to come.

7th September 2005. Northern Ireland were scheduled to play England in a World Cup qualifier in Belfast. Northern Ireland hadn’t beaten England since 1972. An English team featuring David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand lined up against a Northern Ireland squad comprised primarily of players who plied their trade in Scotland and the lower divisions of English football. England’s ‘golden generation’ were expected to achieve no less than a whitewash victory.

With 74 minutes gone, the game remained goalless. Then, the unthinkable. Healy, who’d barely had a sniff of goal all game, latched onto a perfectly waited through ball by Aston Villa’s Steve Davis. With half of England’s star-studded backline playing for offside, the Leeds striker composed himself and hammered past Paul Robinson.

‘That goal’ as it became known in Northern Ireland, gave the Green and White Army a first home win over England since 1927 and sparked celebrations that eclipsed anything previously seen at Windsor Park. David Healy’s place in Northern-Irish football folklore was now secured, yet incredibly, it arguably wasn’t even his finest moment in a green shirt.

One year on from the conquering of the English and Northern Ireland faced another seemingly impossible challenge in a European Championship qualifier against a Spanish side who’s starting 11 read like a Ballon d’Or shortlist.

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There was quiet optimism ahead of the Euro 2008 qualification campaign. The victory over England was followed up with a credible friendly draw against Portugal and although Northern Ireland didn’t make it to the 2006 World Cup, Sanchez appeared to be building a team that could at least challenge for qualification to a first major tournament since 1986.

The buoyant mood surrounding the team evaporated within 45 minutes of the opening qualifier against Iceland. Northern Ireland ended up 3-0 down after 36 minutes. There was nothing even Healy could do this time as his 60th- minute effort was ruled out for a foul and his team were booed off the pitch in disgrace at full time.

The build-up to the Spain tie was dominated by memories of a legendary summers’ night in Valencia and Northern-Ireland’s finest moment on the international stage, a 1-0 victory against La Furia Roja at the 1982 World Cup finals to send the Ulstermen through to the second round. At Spain’s own World Cup, no less. That night belonged to Watford’s Gerry Armstrong; this one would belong to David Healy.

The game couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, with goalkeeper Roy Carroll, making his first start since 2004, hobbling off injured in the early stages. To make matters worse Xavi then gave Spain the lead.

Coming off the back of the Iceland embarrassment, there were fears of a collapse. But Healy would step up for his country once more, capitalising on an uncharacteristic mistake from Xabi Alonso to equalise from point-blank range. The Green and White Army would survive numerous scares and hold out until the 52nd minute, before succumbing to a neat David Villa finish following an intricate through-ball by Cesc Fabregas.

This was a game that Northern Ireland would have gone on to lose comfortably in previous years, but the teams’ new talisman had other ideas. Latching on to a short-ball from a well-worked free-kick routine, the Leeds man would net again, firing into the corner of the net to bring the game level.

At that point, Healy and the rest of the team should have been content with a draw and held on to the point they had for dear life, but remarkably, the story wasn’t over yet.

With 10 minutes remaining, substitute keeper Maik Taylor lumped the ball forward towards Healy. Peeling off the back of Michel Salgado, Healy let the ball bounce twice and in one moment of genius lobbed the ball over a back-peddling Iker Casillas and into the back of the net.

Sanchez’s men would hold out for an historic victory to cue wild scenes across Belfast. To put Healy’s hat-trick into context, not only was it the first scored by a Northern Ireland player since 1991, he had done so against arguably the best keeper in the world at the time. Healy was still playing for a Leeds Utd side who would go on to be relegated to League One at the end of that season. The Spanish outfit that he had just dismantled, would go on a 35-game unbeaten run, win the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup all whilst being lauded as one of the greatest teams of all time.

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In March 2007, Healy became the first player ever to score two international hat-tricks for Northern Ireland as he plundered three past Lichtenstein in a 4-1 victory. It was his 27th goal in 55 appearances for his country and provided the perfect tonic for a crucial showdown against Sweden in Belfast four days later.

Sweden, boasting Zlatan Ibrahimović up front, went into the match top of the qualifying group and clear favourites. They took the lead on 26 minutes through Bolton Wanderers favourite Johan Elmander. Energised by the special Belfast atmosphere that had become a feature of Northern Ireland under Lawrie Sanchez, Healy would once again demonstrate his ability to shift into another gear when wearing his nation’s shirt, capitalising from indecision in the Swedish defence to swivel and smash in a stunning volley from the edge of the box.

Healy wasn’t finished yet either. Superb work from Damien Johnson on the right-wing resulted in a pinpoint cross into the box that was delicately slotted past Andreas Isaksson in the Swedish net. Healy’s double gave the men from Ulster an improbable victory which meant they replaced Sweden at the top of Group F.

There was a feeling amongst the Northern Ireland players that, for the first time, they could qualify for a major tournament. Sanchez had done an unbelievable job of getting the best out of the Leeds striker and indeed the rest of the squad, but in football, things change quickly.

In April 2007, struggling Premier League side Fulham, impressed with Sanchez’s work in Northern Ireland, appointed him as manager on a caretaker basis. He managed to keep The Cottagers in the Premiership, which lead to him being appointed permanently ahead of the 2007/08 season. Initially, Sanchez had combined his roles with Northern Ireland and Fulham, but his upgrade to full-time status meant he had to resign from international management.

His departure was not only a huge loss for Northern Ireland but for Healy too. In his 29 international games prior to Sanchez’s appointment as manager, he had scored just eight goals. Given a new lease of life by the former Wycombe manager, he scored 20 goals in 27 appearances under his tenure. Would his replacement be able to get the best out of him as Sanchez had done?

The task of finishing the job started by Sanchez was given to ex Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday man Nigel Worthington, who was appointed on a short-term contract until the end of the qualification campaign. The man at the helm may have changed but the form of Northern Ireland’s enigmatic frontman showed no sign of disappearing. Healy, who had re-united himself with Lawrie Sanchez at Fulham the previous month, bagged twice against Liechtenstein in Worthington’s first match in charge.

Northern Ireland would go on to win the game 3-1 setting them up perfectly for two September ties against Latvia and Iceland. Win these two games, and the side, who were ranked lower than Madagascar just three years ago, would be within touching distance of the finals in Austria and Switzerland.

Under the weight of pressure, Northern Ireland collapsed, losing 1-0 in Latvia and 2-1 in Iceland, courtesy of two own goals. These two crushing results were followed up with a battling 1-1 draw in Stockholm against Sweden. It wasn’t mathematically impossible, but Northern Ireland now needed a minor miracle, with wins against both Denmark at home and Spain away imperative to keep the dream alive.

The game against Denmark provided Healy with a chance to brake Croatian legend Davor Suker’s record of 12 goals in a Euros qualifying campaign, which he had equalled with a penalty against Iceland.  A chance to make history in front of an adoring Windsor park crowd against the team he had made his name against all those years ago when he fired gloriously past Peter Schmeichel.

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With 10 minutes remaining in the game, it appeared as if the game was heading for a draw, but Northern Ireland’s saviour had one final trick up his sleeve. With his back to goal and surrounded by Danish defenders, Healy reigned the ball in from a thrown in, turned and chipped the ball over Thomas Sorensen. The rain-soaked Windsor crowd watched on as the ball dropped over the 6-foot 5 Villa keeper and into the back of the net.

The goal gave Northern Ireland victory and put Healy in the record books as the all-time top scorer in a single European Championship qualification campaign. A record he now jointly shares with Robert Lewandowski. A mind-boggling achievement considering Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Villa were just a few of the names Healy outscored that year.

Nigel Worthington’s side now had to beat Spain away from home and hope Latvia did them a favour against Sweden. The defeats to Iceland and Latvia had proved crucial and they fell to a 1-0 defeat in Spain, a result that proved inconsequential in the end as Sweden beat Latvia 2-1. Sadly, it wasn’t to be for the Ulstermen.

For Healy, it was ultimately the pressure he had brought on himself that would prove his downfall. The burden of being his country’s all-time leading scorer weighed heavily, with the Denmark moment proving to be the last truly memorable contribution in a Northern Ireland shirt.

The sparkling form that had lit up Euro 2008 qualifying deserted Healy and the international goals dried up. He would score only once in the 2010 World Cup qualification campaign and didn’t register at all in Euro 2012 qualifying. He did score again for his nation, a last minute equaliser against Azerbaijan in 2012. It was one last hurrah from Ulster’s goal scoring hero that ultimately signalled the end of his international career.

He would eventually retire from football in 2013, with his record for Northern Ireland standing at 36 goals in 95 games, making him the country’s all-time top scorer by a mammoth distance. He has gone one to forge a successful managerial career with Belfast side Linfield, but for Northern Ireland supporters, it will always be for his stellar performances in Euro 2008 qualifying and his legendary goal against England that he will be most fondly remembered.

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Jonathan Brown

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