How David Healy hat-trick against Spanish changed the world
10 years to the day since historic Windsor match
It was TEN years ago today that Northern Ireland striker David Healy changed the football world with a stunning hat-trick to beat Spain at Windsor Park.
How time flies. Healy, now the manager of Linfield, cannot believe a decade has passed since what he describes as his best all-round game for his country.
Almost a year on from an epic victory over England at Windsor secured by Healy (who else?), Northern Ireland turned up at the stadium to face a silky Spanish side packed with superstars and ready to slay a side supposedly low on confidence and in disarray. A few days before, Northern Ireland, then managed by Lawrie Sanchez, had been humiliated 3-0 at home to Iceland in the opening match of the 2008 European Championship qualifying campaign.
The criticism of the performance and result had been fierce. Against Spain, led by Real Madrid icon Raul, Northern Ireland were expected to be lambs to the slaughter.
But in one of the most memorable nights in the history of sport in this country, the heroics of Healy saw the nation celebrate a glorious victory.
Barcelona midfielder Xavi had given the Spanish an early advantage, before the poacher in Healy nipped in to equalise by half-time. David Villa restored the lead for the visitors on 52 minutes only for Healy to hit back again with a superb finish from Sammy Clingan's free-kick.
The 14,500 full house crowd, creating a stunning atmosphere, would have settled for a draw.
Healy, though, had one final moment of magic up his sleeve. From a Maik Taylor clearance, the ball bypassed the Spanish defence and Healy, with the goalscoring instinct he showed throughout his international career, produced a lob of perfection to sail over the desperate lunge of Iker Casillas and into the net in front of the Kop. It was an extraordinary finish to a staggering night.
While Northern Ireland celebrated a remarkable 3-2 victory at the final whistle, the Spanish were left shell-shocked. Back home for them a post mortem began.
Daily newspaper El Mundo said that Spain had "made fools of themselves" and El Pais labelled the result a "complete disaster". There were calls for then boss Luis Aragones to resign. He accepted the blame but insisted he would not quit. Instead, he set about making major decisions that ultimately would prove hugely beneficial to the team.
Raul, who won his 102nd cap at Windsor, never played for Spain again. Rather than continuing to build the side around the striker, Aragones opted to make Barcelona's Xavi his main man.
Spain lost their next qualifier to Sweden, but significantly the mood had changed in the camp.
There was greater desire and determination in the group and a greater sense of togetherness.
Soon the Spanish started winning and they couldn't stop, first under Aragones and then with Vicente Del Bosque in charge.
They won Euro 2008, the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012 and are now regarded by many as the finest side international football has ever seen.
A few years after Healy's hat-trick, Aragones reflected on his nightmare in Belfast, saying: "After that game there were things that needed to be done for the good of football. Some players weren't performing as well as we would have liked and he (Raul) was one of them."
While Raul was discarded, Aragones kept faith with others humbled at Windsor like Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, who came off the bench, and unused substitute Andres Iniesta.
They provided the backbone of a team that dominated the international scene for years.
Healy recalls: "Going into the game we were feeling deflated after losing 3-0 at home to Iceland on the Saturday. We rightly took a bit of flak from our own supporters that day and the knives were sharpening for the players and the manager.
"Then on the Wednesday we turned up against the Spanish team and defied all the odds. After that game they dropped Raul and started to build the team around the Barcelona tiki-taka style of football and went on to achieve amazing success.
"It does make me feel proud when I think of that night, but not so great when I'm told it was 10 years ago.
"Personally I think it was my best performance for my country. My all-round game was as good as it ever was for Northern Ireland. For long periods of the game I didn't get much service but when the ball came to me I was pleased that I could hold it up and bring others into play.
"I always talk to our players at Linfield about when you are under pressure it is vital that you retain possession and take the pressure off the back four and goalkeeper. Me and a young Kyle Lafferty were up front that night and we held the ball up well."
On Sunday, WBA defender Jonny Evans excelled at centre-back in Northern Ireland's 0-0 draw in the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier. Ten years ago, the then Manchester United teenager made his international debut against Spain.
Healy says: "Jonny roomed with me the first night he came to join up with the squad. Lawrie Sanchez knew I had known Jonny from being around Manchester United and how highly he was rated at Old Trafford.
"He asked me if I thought Jonny was ready and I said you are never going to know until you put him in. He selected him at left-back and Jonny was immense that night.
"For someone so young and inexperienced, he really stepped up and delivered a big performance, He showed his quality and since then he has put in many brilliant performances for Northern Ireland."
While there was a transformation for Spain after the game on September 6, 2006, there was drama for Northern Ireland too with Sanchez stepping down from his job that evening before returning and then leaving for Fulham eight months later.
For Northern Ireland supporters, however, the match is remembered and revered for Healy's highlights, especially his breathtaking third goal.
"That was one of my better goals," says Healy with a smile.
"At the time Warren Feeney was about to come on. It could have been for me, so I'm glad I was still on the pitch, otherwise I wouldn't have got the hat-trick and we wouldn't have beaten Spain. That evening our team and our fans were magnificent.
Where the heroes of 2006 are now
"It was a special night, unforgettable."
Roy Carroll: The veteran keeper secured a move home to Linfield over the summer after short spells with several clubs
Jonny Evans: Joined West Bromwich Albion from Manchester United last summer and has been valued at £25million by his manager Tony Pulis
Aaron Hughes: Signed for Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters after being released by Melbourne City in Australia
Stephen Craigan: Now coaching at Motherwell and is a respected pundit for BT Sport
Chris Baird: Retired from international football after Euro 2016 to focus on his club career with Derby
Michael Duff: Retired from football at the end of last season after making 383 appearances for Burnley
Sammy Clingan: Joined Roy Carroll in returning home to Linfield over the summer
Steven Davis: Now captain of both Northern Ireland and Southampton, the midfielder is a key player in both teams
Keith Gillespie: Retired from all football in 2013, now does media punditry
David Healy: Retired from football in 2013 and is now Linfield manager after taking over in October last year
Kyle Lafferty: Currently with Championship side Norwich, but is struggling to find game time at the club
Maik Taylor: Retired from all football in 2013, now goalkeeping coach with the Northern Ireland national team
James Quinn: Retired a year after the win over Spain and became a first team coach at Tranmere Rovers a year ago
Warren Feeney: Was player-manager of Linfield from 2014-15 before leaving to become assistant manager at Newport County, where he is now manager