Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

John Laverty: Sectarianism has no sense of humour, David

David Healy

Okay, cards on the table right from the start. I know David Healy pretty well and I like him a lot.

And because of him, back in September 2005, I felt a surge of utter, undiluted elation that I’ve never experienced before, nor since.

I called it The Moment. Even today, the thought of it still gets the endorphins flowing through the brain.

The wee man also writes a column in this newspaper, but that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with what I’m going to say here. I’ve been highly critical of colleagues in the past, believe me.

everyone seems to be talking about David at the moment. About what he did at the weekend. He was on a lot of front pages yesterday, including ours. This is a big talking point.

Up until now, David Healy and controversy have been very distant cousins.

You may recall that he was one of the ‘Prague Five’ arrested after a row in a nightclub following Northern Ireland’s match with the Czech Republic many years ago, but apart from that the headlines have been mostly favourable.

And why not? After all, our wee country hasn’t had a bigger sporting hero in years.

We certainly haven’t had anyone, not even Bestie, who could hit the back of a net in international football like Healy. His record, especially over the last four years or so, is simply breathtaking.

And yet he’s such a modest, unassuming lad. A bit shy too. Arrogance is alien to him. Family and football, not fame and fortune, are his priorities.

So let’s give what happened on Saturday a bit of perspective here.

As you know, David mimicked playing a flute in front of Celtic fans during a match at Fulham’s ground, Craven Cottage.

Apparently, some of the Bhoys supporters had been giving him a bit of stick about the Northern Ireland flag on his boots.

They chanted “Where were you on The Twelfth?” (or words to that effect, give or take the odd profanity). So David did the flute thing, and now, apparently, all hell has broken loose.

As most football followers will know, Paul Gascoigne did something similar about ten years ago.

But Gazza did it in the heat of an Old Firm battle, a genuine competitive game with a lot a stake and, quite rightly, he was taken to task because such a gesture could have prompted a riot.

Healy’s riposte came in a sleepy pre-season friendly in London. And he was playing for Fulham, not Rangers.

I’ve heard from several Celtic fans who were there, and they thought what Healy did was hiliarious. Indeed, many of them caught up with him later, and he was happy to sign autographs.

One guy I know said the flute thing didn’t even feature in conversation on the boat back to Belfast. So who were these Celtic fans who, we are told, were ‘deeply offended’ by what David did?

Stay away from football, lads, if you’re as easily hurt by someone who is widely renowned for not having a sectarian bone in his body. The gesture was clearly meant to be light-hearted.

None of this, however, excuses what David did. He knows what Northern Ireland politics are all about and, as a vastly experienced footballer, he really should have known better.

All right-thinking people will know there was no harm meant, but therein lies the problem: far too many of The Offended cannot be regarded as right-thinking.

Those who took offence at what Healy did on Saturday are among the same people who saw no wrong in Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc crossing himself during Old Firm games. Sure, he’s a Catholic, isn’t he, and that’s what Catholics do.

Yes, he is. And yes, there are many Catholic players throughout the world who cross themselves on the football field. But anyone who does it during an Old Firm game is either grossly irresponsible or just plain stupid.

Healy is neither, but he took a risk at what he did being taken the right way and it backfired, badly.

I feel for him because this will hang around like a smell for some time to come. We’ve already started hearing from the “told you the Northern Ireland set-up was sectarian” brigade. For many years, these malcontents have had nothing to write home about; this has opened that pipe again.

The irony of course is that David is (not was, is) the epitome, the embodiment of the new, peacetime Northern Ireland. He has an ambassadorial role in the forthcoming Olympics and an MBE to collect. I was, and still am, immensely proud of him and I have no doubt that sentiment applies to the vast majority of our citizens.

He made a mistake, sure. The mistake in believing that, even in these more open-minded days, you can make a joke about sectarianism and get away with it.

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