Regrets and goals - former Leeds United striker David Healy opens up on Elland Road memories and frustrations

Ask David Healy about Leeds United and the memories and regrets flow, like the goals did for club and country during his three Elland Road seasons.
GOALS: David Healy scored 31 times for Leeds United and 13 times for Northern Ireland during the same period. Pic: Getty.GOALS: David Healy scored 31 times for Leeds United and 13 times for Northern Ireland during the same period. Pic: Getty.
GOALS: David Healy scored 31 times for Leeds United and 13 times for Northern Ireland during the same period. Pic: Getty.

For the Whites, he scored 31 times in 121 appearances, but only 89 of those were starts and he was often played out of position.

In the green and white of his national team during the same period, he scored 13 of the 36 international goals that made him a Northern Ireland legend and earned him Membership of the Order of the British Empire.

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By the time he arrived in Leeds on October 29 2004, the 25-year-old was already Northern Ireland’s all-time leading goalscorer with 16.

At club level, he had fired in 45 for Preston North End and a £650,000 deal to bring him to LS11 concluded a drawn out pursuit by Leeds United, whose fans had already expressed their appreciation for his talent.

When Preston came to Elland Road on October 16, Healy applauded home fans who had chanted about his desire to join their club. It went down well with Whites but not Lilywhites.

“With all the speculation in and around September, October I was well aware of Leeds’ interest,” said the 40-year-old Linfield manager.

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“I had spoken with Leeds captain Paul Butler and I know Kevin Blackwell had come to watch me at an international match, the interest was there.

REGRET: David Healy was Leeds United captain on the day they were relegated to League One. Pic: Getty.REGRET: David Healy was Leeds United captain on the day they were relegated to League One. Pic: Getty.
REGRET: David Healy was Leeds United captain on the day they were relegated to League One. Pic: Getty.

“Leeds fans were incredible with me and not even just from minute one – when I played for Preston at Leeds I got a great reception, in the hope I would sign. I remember the ovation.

“I took a bit of stick for wanting to leave Preston because I still had a year left, but my mind was made up, I felt I was harshly treated at Preston, I wasn’t getting the game time I wanted.

“When I did sign, Leeds were crying out for a little bit of hope – I was supposed to come in and fire us to the Premier League.”

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Healy knew Leeds were a big club. When he was growing up in Killyleagh in the 80s and early 90s, Northern Irish internationals John McClelland and Nigel Worthington graced the Elland Road pitch and among the Rangers, Celtic and Manchester United shirts on display in Ulster were Leeds tops.

SWEET: David Healy enjoyed goals against Preston North End, where he took flak for the manner of his departure. Pic: GettySWEET: David Healy enjoyed goals against Preston North End, where he took flak for the manner of his departure. Pic: Getty
SWEET: David Healy enjoyed goals against Preston North End, where he took flak for the manner of his departure. Pic: Getty

The club’s success in the 60s and 70s built a significant fanbase across the Irish Sea.

Yet the magnitude of it all still caught him by surprise.

“Leeds were still a huge draw, a huge club” he said.

“But I was surprised at the size when I got there, even though we were in the Championship, the support we had.

“Until you actually play you don’t realise the passionate commitment of the fans.

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“When we played Colchester and Southampton away, we were probably the only team in the country taking up a full allocation.

“I remember wondering if all those guys were local people travelling down, then I was made aware Leeds have so many supporters clubs in and around London, even further south than that. We always had an incredible away support.”

He joined a freshly-relegated side, struggling for goals and sitting in lower mid-table, and took a couple of games to get going, saving his first goals for his third appearance, against Preston of course.

“Two of my favourite goals came in the one game, we played in a light blue kit away at Deepdale and beat Preston 4-2,” he said.

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“I scored two goals and I was battered from pillar to post from the minute I got off the coach. Sean Gregan [ex-Preston] played in the same game, we came out together and he was getting this huge round of applause, greeted like he was God coming back.

“I felt I’d scored so many goals for Preston and yes I’d left and people were disappointed with the way I’d left but I felt like a mass murderer.

“It gave me a little bit of an incentive to score a couple of goals and thankfully I did.”

Leeds finished 14th in his first season and Healy, who was under no illusions that it was a year of consolidation after relegation and financial meltdown, scored seven times.

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He hoped for more in his second season and got it, but it would not be accurate to say the campaign did not disappoint.

It started so well, with a brace in the opener at home to Millwall, but ended in heartache. Along the way, there was frustration.

“This isn’t blaming people, we all sort of played a part throughout the season,” he said.

“To be honest the formation didn’t suit me as well as it could have done.

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“Being a manager now I look back and the manager at the time had the nucleus of a good squad, good players, he wanted to pick the formation, which I was fine with.

“I found myself at times playing on the left wing or the right wing. I didn’t feel I was at my best.”

Healy still went on to finish the season joint top goalscorer with Rob Hulse and their goals helped Leeds to a play-off spot.

He started the first leg of the semi-final against Preston, a 1-1 draw, and understood Blackwell’s reasoning when the manager changed the team for the second leg.

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“We needed to be defensive and organised,” said the striker.

“He didn’t want to go with myself or Cresswell, Blake. We wanted to give ourselves a chance and I understood the reasons.”

Leeds won the game 2-0.

What Healy struggled to understand was being named among the substitutes for the final against Watford, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, a game they lost 3-0.

“The disappointing thing for me was having contributed quite a bit through the season, scoring a few goals, playing out of position a little bit, when we finally got to the naming of the team we kept the same personnel that won at Preston,” he said.

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“It wasn’t, in my eyes, one of those games we didn’t need to be defensive minded.

“I don’t think it was a 3-0 scoreline, there were a couple of freaky incidents and goals, but we didn’t give ourselves the best chance. I didn’t start. He brought Robbie Blake on at half-time, I came on with 20, 25 minutes to go.

“I always remember at half-time, I could see thousands and thousands of Leeds supporters and I looked up, I knew where my family were sat and just put my hands out as if to say ‘what else can I do here?’

“We were getting beaten in the play-off final, I’m on the bench.

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“When I went to Leeds I went to help Leeds get promoted, I just felt a bit helpless.

“When I came on we were 2-0 down, chasing the game and it was basically a lost cause. I have huge, huge regrets over not playing a part in that final.

“I’m not saying if I’d played or if Robbie had played it would have been different, I understand now managers have difficult decisions, I just felt and still feel now we got it wrong.

“It’s basically the closest Leeds have come to getting back in. If we had got back in, Leeds probably would still be in the Premier League.”

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Blackwell would depart early the following season, before Dennis Wise took over in an ill-fated season that would end in the unthinkable – relegation to League One.

It still held some special moments for Healy.

Having scored a hat-trick in Northern Ireland’s win over Spain, he got another against Liechtenstein in March and then two against Sweden four days later.

Wise, who hadn’t started Healy for the two games prior to the international break, was at Windsor Park for the Sweden game and was serenaded with a chorus of ‘are you watching Dennis Wise?’ from the Kop.

“I scored a couple of goals, I’d been struggling with a bit of an injury and he said you’re playing Friday night against Preston. I said we’ll let’s see how the body is tomorrow Dennis.

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“At Deepdale on the Friday I was having a below average game but Dennis called me over and said you’re staying on.

“I was running on empty, but somehow one managed to hit the top of my sponge head and looped over Andy Lonergan for a 96th minute winner.

“It gave us belief at the time and I thought this is us, we’re going to go on a bit of a run here and save ourselves.”

There was no run. Leeds won two and lost two of their next four and a 1-1 draw with Ipswich saw them relegated.

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It remains another source of regret for Healy, but this one took on extra embarrassment.

"Jonathan Douglas was captain at the time and he was either injured or not playing and Dennis Wise rang me in the week and said do you want to be captain, I said 100 per cent, what a great honour," said Healy.

"The negative that came from that though was that I was captain on that day against Ipswich when we were relegated.

"There was a lot of frustration and disappointment. I still contributed some of the goals but probably not enough, not what I’d hoped for.

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"We should never have been relegated with the squad of players we had. I felt huge embarrassment, not only from being captain but because I had joined Leeds to get into the Premier League. To find yourself being relegated was a huge embarrassment. I felt disbelief that Leeds were relegated to League One."

Leeds were facing relegation and administration to boot and Healy was a saleable asset.

His time at Elland Road was coming to an end.

"My last game was the Ipswich game, it was Derby away the week after and I knew from the way the club was speaking to me," he said.

"By no means was it me pushing to get out the door, if someone had turned round and said you’re not going anywhere, I’d have stayed, one hundred per cent. I felt I had unfinished business at Leeds."

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He never would finish that business, despite speculation in the media at various points in his later career that the Whites were set to bring him back.

He did return to see Leeds regain their Championship status in 2010 with a win over Bristol Rovers and a 2014 scouting mission on behalf of Northern Ireland boss allowed him to reconnect with the club.

"It was the first time I’d been back in behind the scenes," he said.

"I got to meet the chairman at the time Massimo Cellino, he kindly invited me into his room. I saw John McClelland and [player liaison] Stix Lockwood who I’d contact now and again. If someone asked me what is his job, I’d say I’ve no idea, he just does everything, if you need something or need to go somewhere, Stix does it."

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Healy's time at Leeds gave rise to a question that would crop up again elsewhere in his career, one he still cannot answer – why was he so deadly and influential for Northern Ireland and not always able to recreate that for his club?

“I know Leeds fans who will read this will be saying I wish he’d have scored as many goals for Leeds as he did for Northern Ireland, I understand that,” he said.

“There’s been managers I’ve played under and different sets of supporters who have asked the same question. I don’t know. I’ve no idea. It wasn’t as if I was trying harder for Northern Ireland than I was for Leeds.

“International football just sort of came naturally, I got myself on a run and scored goals. Whether it was the shape of the team and the players in and around me, I don’t know.”

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What he is certain of is that it was a ‘huge honour’ to play for the club, regardless of position or whether he started or not and he's adamant he never shirked an occasion.

And it certainly wasn't all regrets and pain.

"I never grew up a Leeds supporter, but after being at the club, the people at Thorp Arch, Izzie cooking the food, the groundspeople, big Martin who did the security on matchday, we became close.

"It was led at the time by Paul Butler and we were all in it together. When we went out in Leeds we wanted everyone to come along with us.

"We travelled across to Leeds, Paul Butler, Jonathan Douglas and the late Liam Miller, to training. Ian Moore I think was the season after, travelling in with us. There was always enough people to get to training with. I loved being in and around the players, there was a bit of banter."

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A lot of Leeds fans have fond memories of Healy, too, as is often the way with goalscorers, whose moments of individual brilliance or instinct lodge in the mind forever.

He has his own favourites among the 31 he scored, for a club he hopes can finally get back to where he couldn't quite take them.

"There were a couple at Elland Road," he said.

"Brian Deane day, he scored four. We were 1-0 down pretty early on and I scored the equaliser. It was one of my better goals, a chip over the goalkeeper, but again it was quickly forgotten about because big Brian scored so many goals in a short period of time.

"The goal against Southampton when we were 3-0 down, my penalty brought us back to 3-3 which gave Liam Miller the chance, again, to take the limelight and score the winner, which he did.

"There's a lot of fond memories.

"I still try to keep up.

"If everything goes to plan and we get back to playing it looks like Leeds will be back in the Premier League where they deserve to be."