David Healy retires: 'I have had the time of my life'
Announcing his retirement as a footballer, Northern Ireland legend David Healy tells us about the joy of playing for his country, those glorious nights at Windsor Park, his club career and pays tribute to the people who have helped and guided him along the way
David Healy has no regrets. Sure, he would loved to have played in the finals of a major tournament and won 100 caps, but as he announced his retirement from playing last night, he did so with a smile, insisting that he'd had the time of his life being a footballer for Northern Ireland and a number of top clubs.
Having left Bury in the summer, Healy had opportunities to continue his career abroad, however, after several months thinking about the future, the 34-year-old decided he wanted to pursue other interests. He plans to coach and hopes to continue his work as a television pundit.
The man from Killyleagh leaves behind a host of magical memories for Northern Ireland fans who took him to their hearts once he scored two goals on his international debut way back in 2000.
Healy went on to net 36 times for his country – a bewildering 23 more than anyone else has managed – in 95 appearances, with some of his strikes the most celebrated moments in Northern Ireland's sporting history.
The winning goal against England in 2005 will never be forgotten. Ditto that astonishing hat-trick a year later against Spain in a fabulous 3-2 victory. There were other memorable efforts against Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria... the list goes on and on.
He scored a record 13 goals in one European Championship qualifying campaign leading to an award from Uefa President Michel Platini. He also collected an MBE from Buckingham Palace.
Healy made the impossible possible as he became a Northern Ireland football icon.
Away from a sensational international career, he was signed as a kid by then Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and went on to shine for current Old Trafford manager David Moyes at Preston. He also played for Fulham, Sunderland and Rangers, among others, before Bury ended up becoming his final port of call.
Earlier this year, Healy spoke about his nightmare season at Bury, where injuries and disputes with manager Kevin Blackwell limited his appearances. It was to be his last campaign as a player, but despite how it finished he looks back on his career with great fondness.
"I've been very, very lucky with all the clubs that I've played for, the managers I've worked under and the people I've met in football," Healy told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Some might say it is a sad day when you officially announce your retirement, but I don't feel that way because I've loved all of it, the training, the matches and the banter with the boys.
"I grew up in Killyleagh kicking a ball against a wall and as a kid I supported three teams, Manchester United, Rangers and Northern Ireland and I got the opportunity to play for all of them as well as several other good clubs, so I have no complaints.
"I guess people may say I didn't do as much at club level as I should have done, but the truth is playing for Northern Ireland was the ultimate for me and to win as many caps as I did makes me feel honoured and extremely proud.
"I have so many wonderful memories playing for Northern Ireland. This is not being disrespectful to the clubs I played for, but I would loved to have been a club Northern Ireland player.
"Playing for my country meant everything to me and there was a period when I couldn't stop scoring and we were beating big nations which was incredible to be involved in.
"The standout games are those against England and Spain in Belfast. There were other great nights at Windsor though and away games, like draws in Sweden and Poland, which I'll always remember.
"I played for four Northern Ireland managers and enjoyed my time working with them. Sammy McIlroy gave me my international debut which I'll never forget, I had my best scoring spell under Lawrie Sanchez, I broke a Euro record under Nigel Worthington and with Michael O'Neill I hit my final goal for Northern Ireland. All good memories."
Perhaps not so good were his final days in 2012 at Rangers, who were in financial meltdown.
Healy revealed: "I didn't want to leave Rangers despite all the problems. I remember when players and agents were going in to meet the administrators and they were talking about stipulations they wanted put in their contracts. All I wanted was another year put on my mine. I was more than happy to play for Rangers in the Scottish Third Division but with the financial issues at the club another contract wasn't possible and I moved down to England again, where my career ended with Bury."
Hanging up his boots, Healy was keen to thank those who made it all possible, in particular his wife Emma, children Taylor and Jude, and parents Clifford and Irene.
"My family have been a massive influence on me," said David.
"My mum and dad and my wife Emma and kids Taylor and Jude have always been there for me. Football, as much as I've loved it, is not always a bed of roses, but when you have a good family behind you, you can get through it. My whole family and my close friend Maurice Garrett, who sacrificed so much time for me in my early years, really deserve so much thanks.
"My coaches at Killyleagh, Crossgar and Lisburn Youth were also influential as was the late Eddie Coulter and Bob Nesbit of Manchester United. They gave me so much advice and help in my teenage years. I also must thank my advisors Robert Park of mxb and Stephen Hughes of Base Soccer, my team-mates, managers, backroom staff, the IFA and, of course, the magnificent Northern Ireland fans.
"I was fortunate to score goals in big games at Windsor but often it was their brilliant support that inspired us to win. Hopefully in the future I can join the fans in the Kop."
No longer a player, Healy will now be part of Michael O'Neill's international coaching set-up.
O'Neill said: "David will always be an iconic player in the eyes of Northern Ireland fans. He is our most capped outfield player with 95 caps and his goal scoring record of 36 senior international goals compares with the best strikers in International football.
"His commitment to playing for Northern Ireland is an example to all current and future international players.
"I know he will have a lot to offer the game as he embarks on his coaching career. David has already performed a scouting role for the senior international team and assisted with the under-17 team as part of his development as a coach.
"I'd like to thank David for his contribution to football in Northern Ireland and look forward to working with him in the future."
After playing under top bosses, I'm now hungry to climb coaching ladder
Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Roy Keane, Walter Smith, Ally McCoist, Craig Brown and Billy Davies at club level. Sammy McIlroy, Lawrie Sanchez, Nigel Worthington and Michael O'Neill at international level.
David Healy played under them all and believes he has picked up enough knowledge from the above to one day be a successful manager himself.
More recently Healy has been enjoying working with Northern Ireland youth coaches Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan, both previously international team-mates.
"I worked with the under-17 coaching set up and it was really enjoyable," said Healy.
"Stephen Robinson is so thorough and Stephen Craigan so passionate. The kids in the squad are learning a great deal from them.
"It was a real learning curve for me listening and talking to them and seeing how they work.
"The whole set-up really opened my eyes with all the staff involved be it nutritionists or IT experts.
"It really was like being with the senior team and that's the way it should be to help us develop as a football nation in the future.
"In recent years I've watched Iceland and Belgium, not the biggest of countries, improving dramatically and I think we can do that too if the structure is right.
"I believe that Michael O'Neill is putting that structure in place with men like Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan coaching our youngsters and having Jim Magilton in the Elite Performance Director role which can benefit our best 14 and 15-year-old players and prepare them for hopefully making the grade in professional football."
Healy will continue to work within the IFA structure and would be keen to develop his coaching.
"I'd like to get into coaching or management down the line," he added.
"I've played under some great managers and coaches and I'd like to think I've picked up details from them on how to prepare and motivate a team.
"All young coaches have to start somewhere and ideally I'd like to show people that players would listen to me and take my ideas on board and go out on to the pitch and do well.
"Being a manager and managing players in a way I think they would respond to with a really good coaching staff around me also appeals."
David Healy factfile
Club career: (up to and including 28/11/2013)
Manchester United (from trainee, November 28, 1997) 3 apps, 0 goals
Port Vale (February 25, 2000, loan) 16 apps, 3 goals
Preston North End (December 29, 2000, loan) 2 apps, 1 goal
Preston North End (January 3, 2001, £1.5 million) 155 apps, 44 goals
Norwich City (January 30, 2003, loan) 5 apps, 1 goal
Norwich City (March 13, 2003, loan) 8 apps, 1 goal
Leeds United (October 29, 2004) 121 apps, 31 goals
Fulham (July 16, 2007, £1.5 million) 34 apps, 6 goals
Sunderland (August 21, 2008, undisclosed) 21 apps, 3 goals
Ipswich Town (February 1, 2010, loan) 12 apps, 1 goal
Doncaster Rovers (November 4, 2010, loan) 8 apps, 2 goals
Rangers (January 30, 2011, loan) 10 apps, 1 goal
Rangers (July 1, 2011, free) 16 apps 4 goals
Bury (August 23, 2012, free) 19 apps, 1 goal
Total career apps: 430
Total career goals: 99
Full International Career
Debut: February 23, 2000; away v Luxembourg (W 3-1)
Full Caps: 95
Unused substitute: 1
Other International Honours
'B' International: 1 app, 0 goals
Under-21: 8 apps, 4 goals
Under-18: 5 apps, 2 goals
Under-16: 2 apps, 1 goal
Under-15 Schools: 10 apps, 6 goals