Ex-Ranger David Healy aims to make history with Linfield

Given the near ubiquitous presence of both clubs in European competition for almost 60 years now, it is perhaps a little surprising that it has taken so long for the fates of a Uefa draw to throw Linfield and Celtic together.
Linfield manager David Healy won a domestic treble last season, his first at the helm of the Belfast club. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNSLinfield manager David Healy won a domestic treble last season, his first at the helm of the Belfast club. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNS
Linfield manager David Healy won a domestic treble last season, his first at the helm of the Belfast club. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNS

For reasons unconnected with football, there are some who would prefer they had been kept apart even longer.

But the visit of Brendan Rodgers’ treble-winning “Invincibles” to Windsor Park this Friday for the first leg of a Champions League second qualifying round tie is a reality which those connected with Linfield are determined to savour.

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When it comes to the history of Northern Ireland’s most successful club, there is no greater authority than Billy Kennedy. Now in his 45th year as a director of Linfield – he stepped down as vice-chairman at the end of last season but remains on the board – he is quick to place this week’s game in perspective.

“It’s our biggest match since we played Manchester City in the first round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup back in 1970,” says Kennedy.

“They were the holders of the trophy and a brilliant team with players like Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee. We lost the first leg 1-0 at Maine Road to a late goal from Bell and then played really well in the return game in Belfast.

“We won 2-1 and City were hanging on at the end. Their coach, Malcolm Allison, nearly swallowed his famous cigar – that was quite a night at Windsor Park.”

In an era when British clubs began to dominate European football, Linfield actually came remarkably close to crossing paths with Celtic just three years previously.

In the other half of the European Cup draw in 1967, when Jock Stein’s side lifted the trophy, Linfield reached the quarter-finals where they were narrowly beaten 3-2 on aggregate by a CSKA Sofia side who were themselves edged out by Inter Milan in a semi-final play-off.

“You could say we were almost just two games away from the ultimate glory as a part-time team that year,” reflects Kennedy.

“Our player-manager in 1967 was a Scot, Tommy Leishman, who played for St Mirren and Hibs either side of a spell at Liverpool under Bill Shankly. Tommy was a hard man and he gave us some great nights that season. We are proud of our European history which, for a club of our size and background, is pretty good.”

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The man attempting to write a new chapter in that story is David Healy, in whose first full season as manager Linfield became domestic champions for the first time in five years, with victories in the Irish Cup and Co Antrim Shield thrown in for good measure.

“David has made a fantastic impact at the club,” says Kennedy. “He’s an iconic figure in Northern Ireland football, of course, as the country’s all-time leading goalscorer.

“He was on a learning curve when he first joined us and lost his first four matches in a ropey period in November 2015. We also lost a couple of finals that season. But he has been terrific for us and has really transformed the team.

“He puts a lot of emphasis on detail. He worked under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Walter Smith at Rangers and David Moyes at Preston during his playing career. You can see he was someone who was learning all that time.

“He is an ebullient character but there is a steelier side to him in a football sense. He is definitely a guy you don’t mess about with. He has gradually built a really good squad here, bringing in his own players and moving others on.

“Success tends to breed success. Winning the double last season was a big one for us. We hadn’t won the league for five years and we’re now back where we feel we should be in terms of football in Northern Ireland. Someone pointed out when we played in the Irish Cup final at the end of last season that there was that wee bit of swagger back in our team again and that’s down to what David has done.”

Andrew Waterworth, a striker who had a brief spell at Hamilton Accies earlier in his career, was the headline-grabbing act for Linfield last season with consecutive hat-tricks at the end of the campaign in the games which secured the league and cup double.

The change in Linfield’s fortunes, however, can be traced to the other end of the pitch and the recruitment last year of 39-year-old former Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll.

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“The man who has made the biggest difference has been Roy,” says Kennedy. “He has been a magnificent signing by David. The number of goals we conceded last season was down 30 per cent on the previous year. Roy is an infectious character, a really great guy to have around the club. The rest of the boys in the dressing room really look up to him.

“David is widely respected in the game across the UK and it puts him in a good position to persuade players like Roy to come to Linfield.”

While their historical links to Belfast’s Unionist community remain intrinsic, as does their natural affiliation with Rangers, the Linfield dressing room has no shortage of Celtic-minded players.

Defender Niall Quinn and forward Paul Smyth, the latter Northern Ireland’s Young Player of the Year last season, will be at the front of the queue to swap shirts with opponents of the club they openly support this week.

“We are very much a mixed club,” adds Kennedy. “The support base doesn’t really change but we do get people coming to our matches who weren’t there in the past. Culturally, it’s a different situation.

“There has been plenty of banter between the Rangers and Celtic fans in our dressing room. Paul Smyth, who’s a sparkler of a player, knows I’m a Rangers man myself.

“The day of the cup final last season, I was wearing a tie that one of the Rangers people had given me last year. Paul spotted it and said ‘Hey Billy, is that the colours of that new club formed in Glasgow recently?’ It’s all good-natured stuff.

“I know Celtic’s decision not to take tickets for the game on Friday probably hasn’t been popular with a lot of their supporters, particularly those who live here, some of them close to Windsor Park. But I can see where Celtic are coming from. They are aware of Uefa’s sword of Damocles hanging over the game, as are we. It was obviously never going to be a runner for it to be played on 11 or 12 July.

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“We think we will take between 1,500 and 2,000 supporters to the second leg at Celtic Park and that will be tightly controlled by us. It’s a fantastic tie for Linfield and we want it to be remembered for football reasons.”