Record goal-scorer David Healy was one of Northern Ireland greats

By Richard PetrieBBC Sport NI
David Beckham and David Healy
David Beckham competes for the ball with David Healy in the 2005 World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park

David Healy was assured of his place in Northern Ireland sporting folklore the instant his winning goal against England hit the back of the net at Windsor Park on 7 September, 2005.

That historic moment when Healy latched onto an incisive through ball from Steven Davis, before rifling a right-foot shot past a helpless Paul Robinson, will live long in the hearts and minds of supporters of the national football team.

One which for years to come will be mentioned in the same breath as Gerry Armstrong's dramatic decisive strike against Spain at the 1982 World Cup.

A first win over the English since 1972 was as welcome as it was unexpected, and was celebrated long into the night and beyond.

Already assured of legendary status by virtue of that magical evening when Sven Goran-Eriksson's multi-millionaire outfit were humbled in Belfast, the Killyleagh man went on to rack up 36 goals in 95 appearances for the country which he was so proud to represent.

His international goal-scoring exploits were to reach their peak when he scored a record 13 goals in 12 games during the qualifying campaign for the 2008 European Championships, a feat recognised by a special award from Uefa president Michel Platini.

And there weren't many tap-ins among those, mostly spectacular efforts against some of the best defenders in the world.

The highlights of that prolific campaign included a hat-trick in the famous 3-2 victory over Spain in September, 2006, both goals in a 2-1 success over Sweden in March 2007 and the record clincher in the win against Denmark on a mostly waterlogged pitch eight months later.

By this stage, Healy's eye for goal and reputation as the man for the big occasion meant that memorable nights to savour at Windsor Park became almost commonplace, a palpable air of expectancy permeating the stadium whenever he touched the ball.

The County Down lad had given some indication of the impact he would make on the international stage when he found the net twice on the occasion of his first cap against Luxembourg in February, 2000.

With goal-scoring being an inherent problem for managers of a country with limited playing resources, the young striker soon shouldered a high burden of expectation whenever he strode out in the green shirt, but it was a challenge he always appeared to relish.

While other players often rendered themselves 'unavailable' for some of the less glamorous friendly games at awkward times of the year, Healy was pretty much an 'ever-present', always keen to add to his tally of caps and goals.

Records tumbled along the way - Healy equalling and then overtaking Colin Clarke's Northern Ireland record by scoring his 13th and 14th goals for his country in a friendly game away to Trinidad and Tobago in June, 2004.

The forward subsequently became the first player ever to score two hat-tricks for Northern Ireland with a treble against Liechtenstein.

That Healy enjoyed a scoring ratio to compare with many of the world's best strikers bears testimony to impact he made on the international stage, and an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2008 was further recognition of his efforts.

David Healy scores an equaliser against Azerbaijan
David Healy after scoring his final international goal against Azerbaijan last year

Despite relatively productive periods at clubs such as Preston North End and Leeds United, the 34-year-old never quite scaled the same heights at club level.

He began his career as a youth player at Manchester United in 1995, but made only three senior appearances before moving on to ply his trade in the Championship.

In 2007, Healy was handed an opportunity to make his mark on the top flight of English football at Fulham by his former international boss Lawrie Sanchez, but was unable to replicate his Northern Ireland form with either the Cottagers or Sunderland, whom he joined in 2008.

He went on to fulfil his boyhood dream of playing for Rangers and helped the Glasgow giants win the Scottish Premier League title in 2011, also playing in the club's 2011 League Cup final victory.

Healy then spent a season with Bury, but was released following the Lancashire club's relegation to League Two.

His final season as a professional did however produce one golden moment as the striker's ambition of scoring once again in front of his adoring 'Green and White Army' at Windsor Park was met.

Introduced to a hero's welcome as a second-half substitute against Azerbaijan in November 2012, Healy fired home a free-kick in front of the 'Kop' stand in the sixth minute of injury time to clinch a draw for Michael O'Neill's side.

The striker's name rang round the stadium to acclaim his first international goal for four years and he earned his final cap in a 2-0 defeat by Israel in March of this year.

Just a few months ago, O'Neill insisted that Healy could still be part of his plans if he were to find a club, but a failure to do so hastened the announcement of his retirement.

Having attended IFA coaching courses and hung up his boots, Healy will now pursue his ambition of becoming a coach and manager, with grateful Northern Ireland fans wishing him the best for a successful future in the game in a different capacity.

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