It’s 34 years since Felix Healy made the late burst from the unlikely surrounds of Coleraine’s Showgrounds to the football cathedrals of Valencia, Zaragoza and Madrid, but the recall is razor sharp as he looks back through a lens unfiltered by nostalgia.
A gifted raconteur, he is best known ‘down south’ for guiding his hometown club, Derry City, to League of Ireland glory at the end of the 80’s, but his part at the 1982 World Cup with Northern Ireland was, if anything, more extraordinary.
How unlikely was it? Where to start?
The tournament was less than two months away when Gerry Armstrong picked up a groin injury playing for Watford and Billy Bingham opted to hand Healy a debut at the age of 26 for the British Home Championship game against Scotland at Windsor Park. That in itself was notable.
Players from Belfast tended to be the only prized catch when Northern Ireland managers went fishing in the shallow waters of the Irish League, but Healy had impressed against Linfield in the Irish Cup final and did well again in a 1-1 draw against the Scots.
It earned him another audition against Wales in Wrexham a month later.
Northern Ireland were poor that night, but players with bigger stages on their minds were happy to offload the ball to the newcomer during a 3-0 defeat and Healy did so well that Bingham shook his hand on the way off and said, ‘Congratulations son, you’re going to Spain’.
His world had already been turned upside down by sharing a pitch with giants of the British game such as Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush. Now, here he was, contemplating an active brief in the country’s first World Cup appearance in 34 years.
The most extraordinary part of it was that this wasn’t his only gig.
“I was still gigging two and three nights a week with the band, all over the North, and Donegal as well. A lot of it was cover stuff. It was sort of towards the end of the showbands era. I remember playing for Sligo in Limerick one day in the 70’s and I was playing in Bundoran that night.
“Looking back now it was crazy, but I quite often would have played for Coleraine in Belfast and then I would have went to the house of one of our players, Gerry Brammall. His missus would make me tea and then I would meet up with the band that night in Belfast and we would do the gig.”
There were times he fell into bed at 8am and made for Dublin an hour later — and all this in an era when the 70-mile spin he sometimes did from Derry to Glencolmcille at the most western tip of Donegal was tantamount to an overnighter.
He smiles in disbelief at the madness of it all and yet there were times when he was holding down a day job, too, including a four-year apprenticeship as a butcher with a firm where Martin McGuinness was the man making the black and white puddings.
Through it all, music was central to his life.
It still is. Last weekend had him performing at five different functions, between weddings and more regular hotel slots, and he was already on the road as a musician when his football career began with Sligo Rovers as a 19-year old.
His game, inevitably, suffered and he went more or less two years without playing at one point before an eight-week spell with Finn Harps led to a transfer to Port Vale. That resulted in 41 appearances over two seasons and a tug of war between England and home.
A switch to Bolton Wanderers beckoned in 1980 until the tragic death of a brother pointed him, definitively, homewards again. He would come close to signing with Luton Town after the ’82 World Cup, but his days playing in England were done.
Coleraine, just 30 miles east of Derry, would prove a happier haunt, though he still rues the fact that a capable team fell one rung of the ladder short of league success three times in his seven years and lost two Irish Cup finals.
“I’ve said it before, but if Jim McLaughlin had been managing us we would have won a couple of championships. At that particular time we trained maybe twice a week for an hour a time at Coleraine and we had players from Belfast who we maybe saw on (match) days.
“Linfield were training three and four days a week. They pipped us to the title a couple of times and that was also the time that Linfield played their away matches against Cliftonville at Linfield so they had everything going for them.”
The Belfast giants carried an aura about them back then. Coleraine would beat them seven times out of eight during Healy’s last two seasons with the club.
“The problem was that everybody shat themselves every time they played them,” he says. Linfield knew as much themselves.
Roy Coyle, their legendary manager of the time, once admitted to Healy that Linfield knew they had most games won when they turned up at grounds in their fancy coach as the other teams invariably travelled in a fleet of assorted vehicles.
Healy sampled that sort of high life himself in the summer of 1982. A stint training in Brighton preceded the switch to the Northern Ireland World Cup team base in Valencia and five weeks of chronic boredom relieved only by their games with Yugoslavia, Honduras, Spain, Austria and France.
Healy felt out of place from the off.
“The guys had qualified. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was like being invited to a wedding and being asked to go take part in the honeymoon. It was a strange thing. I felt I was good enough to play in the team. I didn’t have any qualms about that, but they were a very established team.”
Bingham took Healy aside in Brighton and told him there was one place open on the first 11. It was wide on the left of midfield and a straight choice between Coleraine’s finest and a 17-year Norman Whiteside who was already a burgeoning star at Manchester United.
There was only ever going to be one winner there.
Healy’s moment came 78 minutes into the second group game, the 1-1 draw against Honduras, when he replaced Martin O’Neill and became the first player in either of the two Irish domestic leagues to play in a World Cup or European Championship.
Roy Carroll’s recent transfer to Linfield upholds the tradition of the North naming Irish League players in every one of their squads for major tournaments stretching back to the 1958 World Cup, but Healy so far remains the only one whose feet stepped inside the white lines.
Four days later and he was standing on the sideline at the Estadio Luiz Casanova in Valencia with the North 1-0 up against the hosts and waiting to be brought on until Mal Donaghy got himself sent off. Bingham called for Sammy Nelson instead and Healy didn’t take it well.
“I would have loved to have played and it was so close. It is difficult when you are so close to the team and events like that, so my recollection of the last 45 minutes against Spain is a wee bit different to everybody else’s.
“Everyone who played that day had the following day off and everyone who hadn’t had to train and to say I wasn’t in the best of form is putting it lightly. I took the huff and I was dropped from the bench for the last two matches. And, to be honest, rightly so.”
Bingham forgave him enough to cap him again against Austria in a European Championship qualifier four months later, after first hinting at a regular role in the side, but then he ripped his thigh against Linfield a few days later and it was 18 months before he was back to full fitness. His moment had been and gone.
It’s a lifetime ago now, but the memories remain.
He didn’t drive back then and for months after the World Cup he was accompanied by the honking of horns as he made his way around Derry. Kids were calling to his house for autographs well into the winter.
The tournament itself may have been a mixed bag, but he lights up at some of the crazier stories that, more’s the pity, will never make it to print, or nights sat in the stands of the Vicento Calderon in Madrid watching Michel Platini’s magical France team defeat Austria.
“It was a great World Cup,” he says.
“The one thing that always sticks in my head is we were getting on to the plane after the Honduras match and (journalist) Charlie Stuart talks to me on the runway and says, ‘the wee fella from Derry will always be able to say that he played in a World Cup’. I always remember that.”