Linfield could lose David Healy to full-time game, says Michael O'Neill
Linfield could face a future battle to hold on to double-winning boss David Healy, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill believes. O'Neill yesterday talked up his fellow former international Healy as a potential cross-channel candidate and also tipped star defender Jonny Evans as the current player most likely to follow him into management.
But his endorsement of Healy (right) will surely set alarm bells ringing among Linfield supporters, a month after the Northern Ireland legend secured them a magnificent League and Irish Cup double.
Linfield promptly rewarded his achievements, which also included a County Antrim Shield win, with a new contract until 2020.
And significantly, that is when O'Neill believes Healy, still only 37, will face decision time on his Windsor Park future. And that could mean a move back across the water where he enjoyed an extensive playing career with the likes of Preston, Leeds and Rangers.
O'Neill, who revealed he advised Healy to take the Linfield job, said: "He's done brilliantly. David has a very, very bright future as a manager, I've no doubts about that.
"He wants to progress. But he'll be limited in terms of the domestic game here, it is not going to offer him a huge amount of progression. He can only go so far, I know that from my time in the League of Ireland with Shamrock Rovers. There's a time to leave. I did three years at Shamrock Rovers. David's not even been at Linfield two years. The key is not to be in a rush to make that decision."
O’Neill, preparing for Saturday’s World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan, also admitted he didn’t initially view Healy as management material.
He added: “David did a bit of scouting for us and I think he found he was at that point where maybe after playing you’re not sure about coaching, and I’m sure he was a little bit undecided.
“He phoned me when the Linfield job came up and I told him to take it. I felt at that stage it was what he needed.
“I wouldn’t have said David would have naturally been a manager (when he was playing). Sometimes players don’t really realise it until they can’t play and maybe David came into that category.
“There’s others thinking about being a manager when they’re 23, 24, and you’re saying, ‘Just concentrate on playing’.
“David was one that maybe didn’t have that grand plan but when the opportunity was presented to him it was the right timing for him in his life and it gave him a bit of direction after playing as well.”
With regard to Evans, O’Neill told why he regards the Greenisland-born star as the Northern Ireland player most suited to management, and he believes the “grounded” attitude of his countrymen is behind their success at home and in Scotland.
O’Neill insists Evans has all the attributes to hold the reins somewhere himself one day, though he appreciates why many of today’s players are seeking alternative careers upon retirement.
His message to those contemplating becoming a boss is that the industry’s demanding nature is what should make it so appealing to those still hoping to scratch their competitive itch.
“Jonny’s very bright, very intelligent, he knows the game and has strong opinions on the game,” O’Neill said. “Jonny has all the attributes you would look for in a manager and he’s got good qualities as a human being as well as a football coach.
“Within the squad, they all have capabilities and know the game. We have a lot of people who have a lot of good human qualities that I think would make them a good manager.
“But you just never know with players. Everyone comes at different times and has a different career path. The biggest thing now is, ‘Are you prepared to do the work? Are you prepared to go and start somewhere and work your way into it?’
“The modern-day player just may not have that desire. You’ve so many opportunities outside the game. We’re seeing people who were perceived as if they were going to be top managers actually settle for being pundits.
“If you have the playing career that some of those guys had I think that’s fully understandable. I had to go and start at Brechin City while I was working in financial services — that was what was open to me.
“You do it, work as hard as you can, and hopefully have success. It’s where lads get the opportunity and whether they’re prepared to take it and stick at it.
“It’s a very challenging career but that’s what makes it enjoyable.”
That was the message O’Neill relayed to his country’s record scorer Healy when he was offered his maiden managerial gig with Linfield in 2015.
The Blues had not won the Irish League or Irish Cup since 2012, yet he lifted both in his first full season and was one of a number of Northern Ireland managerial success stories.
After O’Neill led his country to the last 16 at the Euros, Brendan Rodgers claimed three trophies during an unbeaten domestic season with Celtic, Neil Lennon guided Hibernian to the Scottish Championship title and Tommy Wright once again secured European football for St Johnstone.
“They’re all very grounded,” O’Neill added. “I think their players see that in them which means they want to play for them, which is key.”