Linfield boss David Healy: 'I had concerns about bringing my kids back here even though I love my country'
Exclusive: NI goalscoring legend David Healy on his new role and what it's like to return to his home soil
It's coming up to a year now since David Healy and his family made the life changing decision to re-locate to Northern Ireland.
One of the nation's favourite sporting sons says he has no regrets, though, ahead of Saturday's Tennents Irish Cup final between Linfield - the team he manages - and Glenavon at Windsor Park, though Healy has admitted that he did have concerns about moving back home and bringing his wife Emma and their three children with them.
The 36-year-old, who had enjoyed a career as a professional footballer in England and Scotland, knew that the Northern Ireland of today was different to the troubled country he grew up in, but that didn't stop the devoted dad worrying and wondering if the environment here was the right one for his daughters Taylor (15) and toddler Tallulah and football-mad son Jude (12).
Thankfully, the worries have eased and there is a sense that the Healys have adapted to their new surroundings.
"One of the aspects of being a footballer is that most players move from club to club.
"I played all over England and in Scotland and my family would come with me when I transferred to a new team. In a way it was a strange life, but we got used to it," said the Killyleagh man.
"I retired from playing in 2014 and last summer the opportunity to be an Irish FA coach at youth level in Northern Ireland came up, so we decided to give it a go.
"It was a big decision for us and I have to admit I had a few concerns about bringing our children to Northern Ireland, and that's even though I've always loved my country.
"You just hope you are doing the right thing and living in Northern Ireland now I can see first hand how much the place has changed for the better.
"I can't speak for others, but I find people are more respectful now of each other and that is great to see. Having been away from home since I was young and now being back, I believe Northern Ireland has come a long way and that makes me feel proud.
"It's a great place to live. My eldest daughter (Taylor) has even said she is interested in going to university here."
This week, Healy has been doing some studying of his own in Nyon, Switzerland at Uefa's headquarters. Along with other well-known football personalities, like former Rangers midfielder Barry Ferguson and ex-Northern Ireland ace Grant McCann, Healy has been working on a compulsory stage of his Pro Coaching Licence.
The Linfield boss returned to Belfast yesterday to take training at Windsor before tomorrow's Irish Cup final.
The match will bring to a close a roller-coaster first season in management for Healy.
While guiding Northern Ireland's talented youngsters, many of whom couldn't quite believe that such an iconic figure was training them, the opportunity to take charge of Linfield arose when Warren Feeney left the club to coach at Newport County last October.
After speaking to his family, including mum Irene and dad Clifford, Healy, a lifelong Linfield fan, accepted the offer.
It was a glorious coup for the Blues, landing Northern Ireland's greatest-ever goalscorer, earning them publicity all over the world.
Known as the 'King of Windsor Park' when he was netting from all angles in a green shirt, the challenge for the one time Manchester United, Rangers, Fulham and Sunderland striker was to lift the Blues back to the top of Irish League football after Cliftonville and latterly Crusaders had taken over that mantle.
Questions were raised when indifferent results early on in his reign piled on the pressure.
Suddenly, Healy - previously cheered wherever he went for legendary matchwinning strikes against the likes of England and Spain - was being jeered by opposition fans.
"I knew it would come," says Healy. "Linfield are the biggest club in the country and when you are the manager of Linfield you are going to take some stick. It goes with the job.
"If it's good-natured banter, I will give some good-natured banter back. I always try to respect other teams, though, and try not to go crazy when we score goals, although obviously sometimes emotion gets the better of you.
In terms of the criticism I received in the opening months, I just got on with the job. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What I was determined to do was work with the players and try to get my message across.
"Back then, there was a lot being said about me not knowing the Irish League, yet even when I was playing in England and Scotland I followed the Irish League.
"I used to Sky Plus the BBC Final Score programme on a Saturday and watch it to keep in touch with the teams and the players.
"I have always been a Linfield fan and have always been interested in Irish League football. It wasn't like I became the manager without knowing anything about the club, or the league."
Healy was never one to panic as a player and he certainly didn't change that mindset in those opening testing months in his first managerial post.
He rode out the storm, becoming a better boss for the experience and making good on his promise when he was appointed that he would blood young players, with Paul Smyth in particular proving to be a revelation.
Healy inspired his side to mount a strong challenge for the title, ultimately coming up just short of Crusaders. There was also a runners-up spot in the County Antrim Shield after Ballymena United beat the Blues in the final.
Quizzed about the campaign to date, with tomorrow's cup final to come, Healy's honesty is refreshing, if not surprising. In all the time that I've known him, which is almost 20 years, when you ask him a straight question, he provides a straight answer.
"For Linfield, so far this season has been okay. But okay for Linfield is not what we want. We want to win trophies for our supporters and be successful," he states emphatically.
"The Cup final gives us a chance to do that. Glenavon are a strong team and have some talented individuals, but if we deliver the type of performance we are capable of producing I believe we can win the game.
"I have confidence in my players. Winning the final would turn this season into a good one."
Linfield supporters might just be more glowing in their praise. After all, victory tomorrow would mean the club's first silverware since 2014, but then David Healy MBE has always been understated.
He's one of the most modest and unassuming characters in Northern Ireland sport - a reluctant hero, but one who should be lauded nevertheless.
Before the likes of Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton and others were wowing us with their daring deeds, Healy was the saviour of Northern Ireland sport on the global stage.
The winning goal against England in 2005 remains the most famous of his 36 international strikes, but his hat-trick to beat Spain a year later isn't far behind.
There were so many glorious moments, not least during the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign when he scored a record 13 goals, most of them spectacular, and single-handedly almost took the country to the finals.
His final international strike, an injury-time equaliser at home to little Azerbaijan four years ago was important, too. Some believe it kept current manager Michael O'Neill in his job.
Who knows, had Healy's late free-kick missed the target, Northern Ireland qualifying for this year's Euro finals may never have happened.
Whether Healy will be there to roar the side on in France remains to be seen.
He says at that time he will be preparing for the new season with Linfield, but surely the IFA will invite him as a VIP guest to at least one of the Euro games, given all he has done for the country.
Now, it's all about the club for the 95 times capped star.
Linfield may play in a part-time league, but Healy gives full-time commitment.
If he is not working with the first team, he is watching the club's under-age sides, endeavouring to know all about those who represent the Blues, much in the way Healy's first manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, did at Manchester United.
Healy spends so much time on Linfield duty and assessing how he can improve as a manager, that his other sporting love has taken a back seat.
"When I was a player I used to play a lot of golf. I would get out two or three times per week if I could, but would you believe since I have become Linfield manager I haven't been out at all," said Healy who, apart from Ferguson, has worked under big names like David Moyes, Roy Keane, Walter Smith and Ally McCoist.
"Once the season's over I'll hopefully get out for a game. Right now, though, all I want to do is focus on winning the Irish Cup final."