Belfast Telegraph

The day Northern Ireland football legend David Healy went behind bars at HMP Maghaberry to tell prisoners he could easily have taken the wrong path in life too

From his teenage drinking to what he really thinks of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Linfield manager took part in a remarkable Q&A inside one of NI’s jails. Our man Ivan Little was the only journalist invited to be there

Northern Ireland football legend David Healy has scored big-time in his most unusual 'away' match... behind firmly closed doors in an Ulster jail.

The star striker, who fans said didn't take any prisoners on the field, was talking to prisoners in Maghaberry during a special one-off visit.

The inmates were asking all the questions and the record-breaking marksman was a winner with them thanks to the frankness of his answers and his refusal to sidestep the dodgiest of dodgy inquisitorial tackles.

The much travelled Killyleagh man opened up to his captive audience that:

  • He wished he'd taken better care of his body in the latter stages of his career.
  • Sir Alex Ferguson was scary.
  • His favourite Northern Ireland goal wasn't against England or Spain.
  • His Linfield fan father Clifford told him he was "mad" to take the manager's job at Windsor Park.

But David's trip inside the high security jail wasn't just a question of sport.

The exchanges with the inmates taking part in a new-style development course ranged over lifestyle, fitness and health issues too.

In front of a tiny crowd of just one travelling spectator - me - David laughed as he arrived at the prison to discover that one of the team leaders on the course was his rival manager at Glentoran, Gary Haveron.

And as prisoners watched a video of David's Go(a)liath exploits in a green jersey, the famous number 9 didn't look at the action and instead talked earnestly with Gary, possibly exchanging tales of woe about the less than impressive performances of their teams this season.

The course for 18 to 35-year-old prisoners has been altogether more successful, according to the organisers.

Gary said he and his colleagues from the Belfast Community Sports Development Network (BCSDN) were encouraged by the response from the inmates to the jail's prisoner development unit course.

He added: "Twelve started and 12 completed the programme. They were all up for it and I think they got a lot from the course."

Taking part in the six-day initiative, which was run in conjunction with the Prince's Trust, were some prisoners who have spent upwards of 15 years behind bars.

And a number of them told Healy that their goal was not to do extra time.

David said he'd been in the jail once before, to hand out prizes in 2009.

And he said he had no qualms about making a comeback, though he had no idea what the prisoners would throw at him.

"I've faced some daft questions from journalists at Press conferences after games, so we'll see how we get on," he said beforehand.

During the candid half-hour Q&A he revealed a lot about himself.

He said he was a typical teenager who drank carry-outs with his friends in a local park.

And he admitted that he could easily have gone the wrong way in life, but he was glad he took the right path.

He didn't spell out exactly where the wrong way could have led him but he didn't need to. His point wasn't lost on the young men in front of him.

David said he'd been desperate to be a footballer, adding: "I grafted. I worked my absolute n**s off to make it."

Extolling the virtues of eating properly to the prisoners, he said his boyhood diet was all about food from the deep fat fryer, but when he went to the youth set-up at Manchester United - "a dream come true" - at the age of 16 nutritionists changed all that.

Ironically for a debate in a jail, he said one of the first healthy foods he tried across the water was ... porridge.

He said that he regretted that in his late 20s he hadn't managed his life and his body better.

"I might have furthered my career by a couple of years if I had. But by that stage I had made my mind up that I wanted to be a coach and I had taken my eye off the ball a bit as a player," he said, adding that he knew he was "below my best" when he joined Rangers on loan at the age of 31.

But it was, he said, an opportunity that no fan of the Ibrox club like him could turn down.

He said he had other regrets. One of them was rejecting an offer by former Linfield manager David Jeffrey to play for the Blues several years before he took over as their boss.

He said he'd eventually come back to Northern Ireland because he wanted to put down roots for his wife and then two children, who'd had their lives disrupted as he moved between football clubs in England and Scotland. He said he returned to be an IFA youth coach, and then he received a phone call from Linfield to manage the team he'd followed all his life.

Asked if he could ever see himself as a manager in the Premier League in England, David joked: "The way we are going at the moment, no."

He said the pressures of management were immense and he didn't know how his nerves would hold up at the highest level.

He added: "If you lose a game it beats you up for three or four days. When you win a game it's gone in 30 seconds because you prepare for the next game."

He said he believed things would improve for Linfield, with whom he won the treble last year.

But he said that managing a Big Two club - and he insisted the Blues and Glens were still the biggest clubs in Belfast - was a privilege.

However, he said his father, a lifelong Linfield fan, questioned his sanity about going to manage a club where supporters are notoriously hard to please.

David said: "When I rang him to say I was taking the job his words were: 'You're mad, son'."

Asked to pick his favourite goal for Northern Ireland, he sprang a surprise. For he didn't choose his famous winner against England, or his hat-trick in the 3-2 win over Spain.

"No, it was in my last international against Azerbaijan," he said. David, who scored 36 international goals, remembered the bad times too, saying: "I think I played nearly every minute of our golden drought when we didn't score for two years."

He said he'd had only three substitute appearances with Manchester United, but even one would have been enough.

He described Sir Alex Ferguson as scary, though he added: "I was fine with Alex until I grew a beard. He liked his younger players to be well groomed and properly prepared to work and give 100%."

He recalled how the fiery Scot "tore apart" players even after youth cup matches.

"It was a warning that he was the boss and that if your standards dropped he would have a pop at you," said David.

However, he acknowledged that the Scottish managerial legend charmed his parents by remembering their first names.

Asked if he'd ever fancied any role other than a striker, he replied he'd always been a "glory hunter" who wanted to score goals, especially because his father gave him money every time he hit the back of the net as a kid.

He said his dad - an Amateur League player with Killyleagh Rec - was the most inspirational figure in his life.

David thanked the prisoners for their questions and he wished them well for the future.

He heard how the subjects covered on their course included fitness, diet, hygiene, sexual health and planning a meal.

There were sporting activities, too, and after their release the prisoners will have three months of mentoring service sessions with BCSDN.

Andy Tosh, the governor heading up the prisoner development unit at Maghaberry, said the first course last year with younger inmates had positive results also.

"Of the 12 men who participated in the programme, only one has since returned to jail," he explained.

"Our aim has been to recruit prisoners who wouldn't be the ones who go to the gym five days a week, and therefore would have to step outside their comfort zones.

"The motivation of the men who did take part was extremely high. They have learnt solid life skills and it doesn't end here. It's all about moving beyond the prison gate and forming links to the voluntary and community sector on the outside."

The prisoners said the course had made them even more determined not to reoffend.

"I won't be back," said a man called Andrew, a former Gaelic footballer. "And I will be following up on the course on the outside when I am released in five months' time.

"I want to work with the team so that I can visit schools and tell kids that jail isn't the way to go."

Colin, who played football in England when he was younger, said the course had made him keen to do his coaching badges.

He added: "The programme has been brilliant for me. Everybody deserves a second chance. We can all make mistakes."

Colin and Andrew said their course had Protestant and Catholics on it. "And that's a big thing in this country," said Colin.

Belfast Telegraph

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