Proud David Healy says Linfield ‘in my blood’ after dream double
So, in the end, an Irish League season like no other will finish with that most familiar of names engraved on the big two prizes...
After the uncertainty within the coronavirus pandemic over how it would start and when it might end, Linfield got over the line with two performances inside four days in keeping with the finest decisive traditions of a club now level alongside Rangers on a world-record title tally of 55.
The Windsor Park outfit’s 44th Irish Cup honour was secured in style on Friday night with an assured victory over Larne before the trip to Coleraine on Tuesday in search of a point to secure the ultimate honour and complete a domestic double.
David Healy remains beloved as Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer but, by his own admission, ‘not everyone’s cup of tea’ as Blues boss.
And, as he stood at The Showgrounds in the moments after a 1-1 midweek draw with Coleraine confirmed Linfield winners of three successive Premiership prizes ahead of Saturday’s final fixture, he reflected on the journey this season to his eighth trophy since stepping into the Blues hot-seat in 2015.
“Linfield’s been in my blood and, to be honest, I think you have to be a Linfield person to manage at Linfield,” said Healy. “Because of some of what you have to put up with, you wouldn’t do it if an outsider.
“I love the challenges of being a Linfield manager, I love those challenges on a daily basis and feel I try to thrive on it.
“I’m honoured to be even in the same breath as people like Roy Coyle and David Jeffrey when you look at the amount of trophies they won.
“This is my fifth full season and I’ve a couple of Irish Cups, a League Cup, a Co Antrim Shield and four League titles.
“But you see what it means to the players in there...that’s not being patronising to Coleraine, we are a humble team.
“We’re humble when we win, we’re more than gracious when we lose and take it on the chin.
“But I’m incredibly proud of the players, they’ve battled through everything honestly.
“They don’t get the praise at times that I feel they should...(people say) ‘Linfield know how to get the job done’, ‘Linfield know how to win games’, ‘Linfield know how to manage games’.
“I think to myself ‘hold on a minute’, we scored 80-odd goals this year in the league...more than anybody.
“We’ve won more games this year in the league.
“So you can’t just be an ‘up-and-at-’em’-type team...especially this year with the money invested in the league.
“Nobody is winning leagues by 10, 12 or 15 points these days...it’s impossible, especially in the condensed season.
“From October that’s our 49th game and it’s incredible how the players keep going to the well and keep digging in.
“I read comments the other day (after the Irish Cup final) how ‘Linfield managed the game on the long grass at Mourneview’ and ‘Linfield played direct and picked up second balls’.
“I was astonished, absolutely astonished...and I tell my players to read it.
“I don’t think they (Linfield players) get the plaudits, in this season of all seasons.
“To come away with the trophies that we’ve won, I couldn’t be more proud.
“Friday night was the best one (the Irish Cup) because it was the next one, the closest one - then, four days later, this eclipses what has been before.
“In a condensed season and with no fans, it’s been such a challenge.
“To do the double this season was near-impossible, this year of all years.
“It’s been an emotional roller-coaster.”
The significant financial investment into clubs such as Larne and Glentoran in recent seasons has served to increase the level of threat to Linfield’s standing as the Irish League benchmark.
However, Healy is happy to embrace the pressures - both external and internal - in pursuit of progress.
“I feel as if I thrive a wee bit more, I get my back up a wee bit more (when faced with those expectations as Linfield boss),” he said. “So the noise outside Windsor Park - and sometimes the noise inside Windsor Park - doesn’t worry me in the slightest because I know what we do.
“I know the job the staff and players have done this year.
“People are going to have opinions but that’s different personalities.
“I’m sure people might think I’ve too many opinions at times, that’s fine.
“We’ve proven, to anyone who was in any doubt last year, that Linfield are champions material.
“Some of the people who were calling (last year) that Linfield weren’t deserving champions (after a mathematical model was used to settle the final standings)...if Coleraine finish second this year, some of those people might sit back and look and think ‘Linfield and Coleraine 1 and 2’ (for another season),” he said. “There were a lot of questions still to be answered last year (when the season ended).
“But I’d huge belief last year we were starting to hit form at the right time...as we have done in recent weeks.
“I know when the first game of the league starts next season the expectations of our Linfield supporters.
“I couldn’t care less about me getting credit.
“The players deserve the credit.
“And my incredible backroom staff who have had to jump through hoops to get us training with the COVID protocols and guidelines.
“Our staff have to jump through hoops left, right and centre to make sure when we get to matchday everything’s ready to go.
“The medical staff and sports science staff etc deserve incredible praise for the job done this year behind the scenes.”
Healy’s admiration for rival manager Oran Kearney and the Bannsiders’ title challenge was evident in the post-match discussion following a 1-1 draw in which Mark Haughey broke the deadlock before Curtis Allen’s equaliser in the top-of-the-table clash.
“Coleraine are an absolute nightmare to be honest the way they play, the way they put you under pressure,” said Healy. “I spoke to Oran (Kearney) before the game, we were chatting and had a bit of banter...I was saying ‘don’t worry, if it’s a draw after 70 minutes we’ll both settle for that’.
“He said if that was the case he’d empty the bench, which he did.
“It would have been nice, a night like tonight especially, to have 1,400 or 1,500 Bluemen in.
“I’ve huge respect for Coleraine...I’ve been up here numerous times, I opened the Milk Cup in the past and have always had good relationships with people in or around Coleraine.
“I know the fans gave me a wee bit of stick at the end but that’s fine.
“Football without fans at times can be dull.”
In a season defined by a trophy double, Linfield’s off-the-field ambitions were confirmed with the launch of a five-year strategy and continued steps towards a full-time model.
“The transition from where we are to full-time...I’ve been speaking to players on and off for eight or nine months,” said Healy. “There’s been a little bit of unrest at times because that’s what happens when you change what has been.
“Credit to the players...not only those who are staying but those who have made their minds up to leave.
“They go out on a high - the Andy Waterworths, the Mark Staffords, the Mark Haugheys etc, Shayne Lavery.
“They’ve put everything in.
“Mark Haughey with his goal tonight and I don’t know how many balls Mark Stafford and Jimmy Callacher had to head away, I’d love to count.
“It’s been a long process and we are, of course, trying to bring players in, in due course.
“Hopefully we will choose the right ones.
“How can we replace Andy Waterworth, Joel Cooper, Shayne Lavery, Mark Haughey and Mark Stafford?
“You are not going to get those type of players.
“So, there is going to be a small transition, a slight transition, next year.”
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