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'I would have played at any level but it wasn't to be'

FOOTBALL rarely indulges sentimentality but a few manage to get lucky.

David Healy played best for Northern Ireland, for whom he scored a hat trick against Spain
David Healy played best for Northern Ireland, for whom he scored a hat trick against Spain

David Healy yesterday brought down the curtain on an 18-year career that presented him with the opportunity to play for the three sides he had grown up supporting as a boy. Manchester United was the first stop once he had elected to leave his native Northern Ireland, the striker managing just three first-team appearances under Sir Alex Ferguson before embarking on what was to become something of a meandering career. It was still three more games than most.

His most accomplished performances seemed to come in the green shirt of Northern Ireland, for whom Healy regularly ascended to a higher plane, in particular at Windsor Park. He scored the only goal of the game as his national team defeated England for the first time since 1972. A year later, almost to the day, he surpassed that achievement by scoring a hat trick against Spain who, less than two years later, would be crowned European champions. His 13 goals in that qualifying campaign remains a record haul. In 95 appearances for Northern Ireland he scored 36 times - more than Denis Law or Kenny Dalglish managed for Scotland, or Ian Rush for Wales - a phenomenal achievement for a nation that has not qualified for a major finals since 1986. It is not a surprise that he will continue to work with Michael O'Neill and the Northern Ireland team now he has hung up his boots.

"I saw the statistics saying I had scored more than guys like Dalglish, Law and Rush in international football and I feel very honoured and lucky to have achieved that," he told Herald Sport towards the end of a day of valedictory speeches. "I can look back at some of the records I achieved for Northern Ireland and be very proud of that."

His third childhood heroes were Rangers and he eventually ticked that box, too, when he signed for Walter Smith's side in January 2011. He continued a career-long trend by scoring on his debut against Motherwell but it would be one of only five goals racked up during 18 months at Ibrox. Healy was 31 years old by the time he moved to Rangers and, by his own admission, past his peak as a striker. If there are regrets now that the time has come for him to look back at everything he achieved in the game, it is that he did not move to Scotland sooner. But it is a minor quibble alongside the realisation of a lifelong dream.

"I see players signing for clubs and announcing that it's a dream come true," he said. "That really was the case for me with Rangers. My only regret is that I didn't sign when I was 27 or 28 when I was at peak physical condition and full of confidence because of the run I was on with Northern Ireland. But I loved my time at Rangers and I'll be forever grateful to Walter Smith for giving me that chance. I hadn't won a medal before I went to Rangers so to be part of the squad that won the league title and the league cup was very special. The highlight was probably beating Kilmarnock on the final day of the season to win the league. Big Kyle [Lafferty] scored a hat trick that day and I got on near the end. I'll always remember the ground being three-quarters full of Rangers fans. It was a special moment in my career."

The end of Healy's time at Rangers coincided with the onset of administrations and dark days at Ibrox. But while a raft of players looked to be excused from their contracts, Healy took the opposite approach. "I still remember going into the administrator's office and people were asking for whatever they needed in their contracts so it was the best deal for them. I came out of the meeting and the administrator must have been scratching his head. People were asking to leave and I was going in looking for another year on my deal. It didn't materialise for me. But I would have played on the astroturf opposite Ibrox if it had meant staying on at the club. I would have played at any level for them but it wasn't to be."

Healy's dad continues to make the trip across the water to watch Rangers in action and his son is pencilling in a jaunt for April when Ally McCoist's side take on Raith Rovers in the Ramsdens Cup final. "Now I'm retired and a man of leisure hopefully I can take in a few games myself," he said.

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