Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Azerbaijan's last visit to Belfast to face Northern Ireland and David Healy's final International goal

David Healy will 'cherish final Northern Ireland goal against Azerbaijan most of all'

By Steven Beacom

David Healy scored international goals against some of the biggest nations in the world. Ask him which one meant the most to him in a celebrated Northern Ireland career spanning 13 years and you may be surprised.

It wasn't the famous winner against England, his iconic hat-trick goal in the triumph over Spain or a stunner which flew past Denmark great Peter Schmeichel.

The answer is an injury-time equaliser at Windsor Park versus Azerbaijan - his 36th and final goal for his country.

That was four years ago when Northern Ireland's record scorer came off the bench to ride to the rescue in a World Cup qualifier, smashing home a 96th-minute leveller in a 1-1 draw to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

The former Manchester United and Rangers star hopes and believes, however, that with Azerbaijan back in Belfast this week, Michael O'Neill and co won't need an injury-time effort to get them out of jail when the sides meet again on Friday.

It is a crucial encounter with the winners set to take control in the battle to finish as runners-up behind Germany in the 2018 World Cup qualifying group.

Robert Prosinecki's side are currently in second spot, which should deliver a play-off place at the end of the campaign. They have claimed seven points from their opening three games, three ahead of Northern Ireland with Norway, the Czech Republic and San Marino making up the bottom half of the table.

Azerbaijan drew away to Northern Ireland and beat them at home in O'Neill's first campaign as boss. A repeat would be a huge blow to Northern Ireland's chances of reaching the finals in Russia.

Linfield boss Healy is sure that won't be the case and feels the Green and White Army will be celebrating maximum points on Friday.

"I think Northern Ireland will win. In the last couple of years, Michael's team have had an excellent record at Windsor and the boys will be confident that they can keep that run going against Azerbaijan," said Healy.

"Azerbaijan took four points out of six from us in the last World Cup qualifying campaign, but I can't see that happening this time.

"On the back of qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals Northern Ireland are now a much more confident side and experienced players like Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Steven Davis have the quality to help see us through on Friday."

Healy adds that Kyle Lafferty is a key figure for the side. The 29-year-old Norwich City striker, who scored after coming on as a substitute against Leeds in a rare club appearance on Saturday, has 19 international goals to his name. Only Healy on 36 has more in a Northern Ireland shirt.

"I am a big fan of Kyle. I like him as a person and when he is playing because he can bring a lot to the squad," said Healy, who won 95 caps. "I remember when I was scoring goals for Northern Ireland and had passed the previous record people were saying they couldn't believe a Northern Ireland player had scored 20 goals.

"Kyle is now on 19 which is a great return and there are more to come because he has quite a few more years left in him.

"It is disappointing that he is not playing as much at club level, but I wasn't playing as much as I wanted at club level when I was scoring goals at international level.

"In a way that makes you want to deliver for your country even more. Whether Kyle plays from the start or comes off the bench, he will be dangerous against Azerbaijan."

Northern Ireland's opponents on Friday bring back important memories for Healy.

It was when Northern Ireland played them in Baku in 2004 that he missed his first international due to suspension after an unfortunate red card against Wales in the previous match. That brought a run of 38 consecutive games for his country since his debut in 2000 to an end.

Just a few days before Healy scored his unforgettable goal to beat England in 2005, he was part of the Northern Ireland side that overcame Azerbaijan 2-0 at Windsor for a morale-boosting success leading into the battle with David Beckham and co.

And then of course there was that last international goal which he cherishes. A defeat in 2012 to Azerbaijan would have done manager O'Neill no favours with the fans early in his reign.

Healy jokes that is his "claim to fame, helping Michael stay in the job".

He recalled: "It was my second last cap for Northern Ireland. I played briefly against Israel after that but the game with Azerbaijan will always stay with me because it was the game in which I scored my 36th and final international goal.

"I had not scored for a little while and I knew in my head that I was not only coming to the end of my international career but my football career. I was at Bury and I was struggling to be fit.

"Even though I had scored quite a few goals for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, I always had it in mind to score one more. It was a big desire of mine to do that.

"I said after the game against Azerbaijan that if something happened to me the next day I could die a happy man because I had scored again at Windsor Park.

"Fortunately it was at the Kop end at Windsor and it helped us avoid what would have been a really tough defeat to take.

"It meant so much to me. People always say about my goals against England, Spain, Sweden and other big nations but probably the goal that I remember most fondly is my last goal against Azerbaijan.

"It was a vital goal too because that was a difficult campaign and I know some people were questioning Michael's position.

"I had always wanted Michael to stay on because I knew given time he would go on to be a successful manager with Northern Ireland, which has proved to be the case."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph