Kevin Blackwell’s priority transfer targets in the 2004-05 season did not come easily. Leeds United’s boss took weeks to pin down West Bromwich Albion midfielder Sean Gregan and that drawn-out saga was good practice for his pursuit of David Healy a month later.
Blackwell’s interest in both players was an open secret and West Brom transfer-listed Gregan in an attempt to persuade United’s board, the Yorkshire consortium, to part with £500,000 and sign him. Gregan finally arrived midway through September 2004, accepting a three-year deal.
Preston North End were less willing to discuss a deal for Healy and Leeds knocked on the door at Deepdale without immediate success, failing with three bids for the Northern Ireland international.
Healy lined up against United at Elland Road on October 16 with speculation about his future raging.
Gregan was one of a number of Leeds players who knew Healy well.
The pair had played at Preston together before Gregan left for The Hawthorns.
“I know what he can do,” Gregan said.
“If you give him half a chance, he’ll bury it.
“If he’s available then I’m sure our gaffer and a lot of other managers will want him.”
Preston’s strength in negotiations was weakened by the fact that Healy’s contract was running out and setting him up for a free transfer the following summer.
United captain Paul Butler was also a friend of the striker’s but Butler denied that he or anyone else was attempting to talk Healy into a move to Elland Road.
“I know David but this is out of people’s hands,” Butler said. “People are saying it’s linked with me but it makes me laugh when they say ‘do you speak to David?’
“Of course I do, he’s a mate who I’ve known for years.
“He’s done well at this level and scored consistently.”
Despite the intense focus on Healy, Preston manager Billy Davies surprised many by playing him from the start at Elland Road.
North End were destined for the play-offs that season but at the time of their meeting, both they and Leeds were floating in mid-table.
United’s meagre tally of 16 goals in 12 games explained why Blackwell was urging his board to sign Healy up.
The forward, however, made precious little impact and was substituted with 15 minutes to go and the match goalless.
The home crowd chanted ‘Healy wants to play for Leeds’ and in a strong hint of his personal wishes, he applauded United’s supporters as he left the pitch. Three minutes later, Danny Pugh scored from close range to earn Leeds a 1-0 win.
“It was flattering to hear such vocal support but also a bit embarrassing because I’m a Preston player,” Healy said.
“I can’t praise this place enough – the facilities, the changing rooms, it’s all geared for the Premier League.
“When I first signed for Preston I said I wanted to play at the highest level.
“Every footballer wants to do that.
“I know Leeds aren’t in the Premiership or flying high like they were a few years ago but to me they’re a massive club with a lot of history and so many great players down the years.”
Preston could see the writing on the wall but in the absence of an agreement with Leeds, Healy played and scored in a league win over Queens Park Rangers three days later.
Davies also used him in a League Cup defeat to Everton on October 27 but by then, the two sides had hammered out the terms of a transfer.
Healy underwent a medical the following morning and Blackwell got his man.
“We’ve agreed a fee with Leeds and it’s still not a figure I’m completely happy with,” said Preston chairman Derek Shaw.
“We tried negotiating with David but Leeds is a big challenge for him.
“He wants to play at a higher level and saw his future at Leeds.”