Belfast Telegraph

David Healy: Good friend, great guy and national hero

February 2000, Heathrow airport. New manager Sammy McIlroy was demanding answers, most of his players were moaning about the farcical situation and IFA officials were becoming more flustered with every passing second.

The flight taking the Northern Ireland squad to Luxembourg for their opening international of the year had been cancelled.

Sitting quietly a few yards away from the chaos of the check-in desk was a young 20-year-old striker called David Healy on his first senior Northern Ireland trip.

As Rudyard Kipling wrote "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.."

It was a quality David would use to devastating effect for Northern Ireland in the decade to come. Healy, on his debut, struck twice against Luxembourg in a 3-1 win after the travel issues had been ironed out.

Composed and clinical, Healy would continue scoring, eight times in his first 15 internationals. Hero status came quickly. The Northern Ireland fans loved him. The nickname King David was born and the Kop revelled in singing the Christmas carol Away in a Manger with the words 'He lay' becoming 'Healy, Healy, Healy' and echoing all around Windsor Park.

It seemed only a matter of time before Killyleagh's favourite son would break the nation's goal record of 13, then came an astonishing scoring drought of 1298 minutes when David and his team-mates couldn't find the net.

Typically, it was Healy who led the side to water, netting in a home defeat to Norway, with Lawrie Sanchez having taking over from McIlroy.

From then the goals flowed like champagne on a Formula One podium. He passed the Northern Ireland record on a Caribbean tour and regardless of the opposition, especially at his beloved Windsor, Healy found the target. England, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and a host of others felt his firepower.

It's no exaggeration that during one golden period between 2005 and 2007 Healy was as dangerous as any European striker in international football – he smashed home a record 13 goals in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, most of them stunning efforts.

Healy provided Northern Ireland fans with belief that they could beat anybody and in the mid 2000s brought more joy to this country than anyone else.

It wasn't just the goals that made him special. His commitment was unquestioned. While other players pulled out if they had the sniffles, rain, hail or shine Healy turned up. From his debut in Luxembourg until September 2004 in Wales, he played in all 38 of his country's internationals. Only a ridiculous red card and subsequent suspension halted his staggering run.

Players often put club before country. Healy did the opposite, sometimes to the detriment of his club career. In his latter years in the Northern Ireland squad he was often on the bench and goals dried up but he did net one final strike, fittingly in front of the Kop, to save the team from an embarrassing defeat to Azerbaijan, leaving him with a record of 36 goals from 95 caps. He also scored 99 club goals, but it was with Northern Ireland that his remarkable feats became the stuff of legend.

The announcement of his retirement has been coming, but it still has that end of an era feel to it. Off the pitch, David is a genuinely good guy... modest, thoughtful and not one who likes a fuss. I'm proud to call him a friend.

On the pitch he's our greatest ever goalscorer and will forever be a Northern Ireland sporting hero.

Happy retirement mate.

Belfast Telegraph

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