No old pals act as Hamilton and Healy eye Cup glory
The close friendship between David Healy and Gary Hamilton stretches all the way back to their early teenage years when they knocked a ball around in Lisburn and dreamed of hitting the big time.
Two remarkable football stories can be traced back to Lisburn Youth where the precociously talented youngsters set about fulfilling their extraordinary potential, first as players and now as managers.
The pals featured in Northern Ireland youth teams but their paths would inevitably separate as in 1997 Gary joined Blackburn Rovers while still at school, signing as a professional shortly after turning 17.
David signed for Manchester United in August 1999, just four days before his 20th birthday, but while his cross-channel adventure took in 11 clubs, the boy from Killyleagh earned iconic status in a Northern Ireland jersey, becoming his country's leading goalscorer.
After spells at Blackburn, Rochdale and Norwegian side Raufoss IL, Gary returned to Northern Ireland and joined Portadown where his sensational form helped him earn five senior international caps.
The 35-year-old has won league titles with the Ports and Glentoran and the Irish Cup with the Shamrock Park side in 2005 and Glenavon in 2014.
Now manager of his boyhood club, the nephew of former Glenavon winger Robbie Dennison is rightly proud of his Lurgan Blues revolution as they go in search of a second Irish Cup success in three years.
David had no managerial experience when he took on the toughest job in domestic football after Warren Feeney's departure to Newport County in October and after the Blues endured a horrible November, the former Leeds United ace awakened the sleeping giant.
A Crusaders title triumph and County Antrim Shield final loss to Ballymena United leaves the Blues desperate to avoid another painful trophyless campaign.
Gary and David may be good pals, hungry to share their respect and admiration for one another, but come kick-off tomorrow in the Irish Cup final at Windsor Park it will be full scale war.
"I've known Gary and played alongside him since I was 13 or 14-years-old," said Healy, who guested for Glenavon in a game against Leeds United in the summer of 2014.
"We were at Lisburn Youth and our friendship goes back to then.
"Even when I was at Manchester United as a kid and Gary was at Blackburn, we were in a lot of Northern Ireland youth teams together.
"I would openly admit that Gary was a better player than me at 18 or 19.
"He scored a lot more goals. He was in the Northern Ireland Under-21 team before I was. He has always had ability and when he came back into the Irish League, I think if you look back over the years he's been here he's been one of the most gifted players to play here.
"I never noticed anything that I thought would make him a good manager, but he would probably say the same thing about me.
"Gary is probably one of a kind, he is great to have in and around the dressing room, he's good for morale, he's good if you need somebody on a night out and he's always there. He's a great team player and he always was.
"Even when he came in at times and didn't always play for Northern Ireland, he was great to have in and around the squad and when he did get the opportunity he always performed."
Hamilton says Healy's greatness came to the surface early in his career.
Even back then, Gary knew a good player when he saw one.
"David was always somebody who I looked up to," said Hamilton. "He was a year older than me at Lisburn Youth when I played there and he was the one player whose records you were trying to beat because he was the best player about at that stage.
"He was going over to Manchester United and he was the one who set the standard to try to beat and he was the one person, I think when you are growing up you need someone to aim to be better than and David was the one that I was aiming to be better than.
"It never happened, but I was just so delighted for him that he went on to do what he did for Northern Ireland.
"He's a good lad and he's somebody who I kept in contact with all through the years with and I was lucky enough to get into Northern Ireland squads when he was scoring all the goals.
"He's a decent person too which is an important thing.
"He never got above his station. For what he achieved for Northern Ireland he could have been running about and turning his nose up at people, but he didn't and he's always been the same with the same level of personality and he never got too big for his boots.
"People say he's quiet, but he always had that hunger to be the best and when you have that you have a chance of being a manager.
"David knew all along what his aim was and I never had any doubt that he would step into management and do okay.
"He's level headed and he always wanted the best for himself and now Linfield are getting the benefit of that.
"For me Linfield for the first time in about four years have a team that will challenge properly for the league title."
As for the small matter of the game itself, played in a cauldron of noise generated by around 12,000, both bosses can feel the butterflies in their stomach.
Healy said: "Even if Linfield had won every trophy this year there would still be huge demand for Linfield to win the Irish Cup.
"It doesn't matter if you win trophies and leagues, when Linfield turn up in an Irish Cup final they are expected to win it - and it doesn't matter who they are playing. The expectation level from the fans will be to turn up, perform and win it."
Hamilton added: "The last thing we wanted was to be going into the Irish Cup final in a position where we would have to win to get into Europe.
"That's an extra added pressure on the players, but they don't have that pressure now.
"They can just go out and enjoy it, play freely and hopefully that brings out the best in them. The Irish Cup win a few years ago brought a feel-good factor about the club again. We have managed to get better year on year since four years ago."
The last time Healy was at an Irish Cup final, Glenavon lifted the trophy in 2014. He'll be back tomorrow without best wishes for an old friend.