David Healy: I have unfinished business with Northern Ireland
At the press conference earlier this month to unveil Michael O'Neill as manager of Northern Ireland, I asked him about David Healy who had netted his first goal of the season for Rangers a few days before.
O'Neill smiled, before speaking of his delight that the Ibrox ace had scored, adding that the 32-year-old was going to be a key member of his squad.
“When I heard that, it really cheered me up,” says Healy, during a typically honest interview.
There were suggestions from some quarters that with O'Neill coming in Healy's magnificent international career might be over.
Well, not according to the bloke who picks the team or Healy, who insists he still has something to offer Northern Ireland and is ready, willing and able to do so.
This is one player who does not intend announcing his retirement.
And this despite enduring trying times in the last few years, having failed to score in the green shirt since 2008.
Astonishing really for a man who before that was a goal machine at the highest level. His 13 goals in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign remains a record as does his 35 in total for Northern Ireland — 22 more than the previous best.
He earned the mantle of King David for scoring winning goals against the likes of England, Sweden, Denmark and then there was that stunning hat-trick to beat a Spanish side who would go on to become European and World Champions.
He was a national hero. Worshipped. Then when Northern Ireland struggled and goals were not so forthcoming the criticism came.
He wasn't helped by the tactics employed by Nigel Worthington, but that didn't seem to matter, nor his unstinting and loyal service which hardly saw him miss a match when others were more selective.
“I was criticised in the last campaign for not scoring any goals, and yes, every striker has to score goals, but in general play I thought I didn't do too badly, certainly not as bad as some were saying,” he states.
“Our results were poor and fans pay their money and therefore feel they can say what they want.
“It's not nice though for me or my family to hear that criticism, especially when I've always given my country everything, but it won't stop me wanting to turn out for Northern Ireland. I want to play a big part in the new regime under Michael O'Neill.”
That appetite to score for his country, just as he did on debut in 2000, is as strong as ever.
Healy adds: “My hunger and desire to make a difference is still there.
“It would have been easy for me to walk away at the end of the last campaign and say that I've done my bit for Northern Ireland, but I believe that I can still score goals at international level. I want to be involved in the friendlies coming up and the World Cup qualifying campaign starting later this year.”
Having won 91 caps, the same as revered defender Mal Donaghy, Healy will be O'Neill's most experienced player. Killyleagh's finest could become the first outfield star (legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings made 119 appearances) to reach a century for Northern Ireland.
“That would be a dream come true, but I'll look to get the 92nd cap first and then take it from there,” says the husband to Emma and dad to Taylor and Jude.
As he pointed out he could have retired with his head held high, just as others such as defensive stalwarts Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan did last year.
Healy says: “I'm not going to have a go at anyone who has retired from Northern Ireland because it's their choice and there can be lots of reasons for the decision — from family or trying to prolong your club career. I understand exactly why the likes of Stephen Craigan and Aaron Hughes did it.
“They were outstanding for Northern Ireland and were a huge part of big victories we achieved in the last decade.
“When Stephen first came into the squad he was questioned but proved to everyone what a great player he was for Northern Ireland.
“Aaron was my captain at Lisburn Youth from the age of 11 to 16. We went our separate ways at club level and then played together for Northern Ireland with Aaron eventually becoming skipper. I've always seen him as my captain. I spoke to him when he decided to retire and it was an emotional conversation for us — it almost left me tears to be honest because I knew how much it meant to him to play for Northern Ireland but he felt it was the right time to go.”
Unless O'Neill can persuade the Fulham defender to change his mind, a new skipper will be required.
Healy says: “At Rangers Steve Davis (pictured) has stepped in for Davie Weir and done a fantastic job. Like Aaron he is not a shouter he is respected by all the lads for what he does on the pitch.
“For Northern Ireland I would say he is probably our best player and he has captained us before so he knows what it is all about.
“There are other candidates like Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. Both would do a good job and I believe Jonny will become a long term skipper in the future and is someone who could win 100 caps if he keeps himself right, but right now I think Davo is the man for the armband.”