For so long a hard-luck story, by the end of his career nobody felt sorry for him anymore, and he bowed out of football a Cork City hero, getting the perfect send-off in last year’s FAI Cup final.
Along the way, the lessons he learned might yet make him an integral part of City’s future
- John Caulfield, Cork City manager
The guy atop the ship could easily have gone under.
The way it starts out, a footballer’s value is his talent. Colin Healy’s took him from Wilton to Glasgow Celtic. It persuaded Dr Jozef Venglos to give him a debut against Rangers.
It brought him a goal in Kenny Dalglish’s first game in charge at Parkhead. A League Cup win under Martin O’Neill, playing the 90 at Hampden when Henrik Larsson scored a hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Kilmarnock.
There was a treble that season. He played 12 times in the league, plenty for a medal.
It earned him 13 Ireland caps, and took him within a Roy Keane mind change of the 2002 World Cup. It meant Mick McCarthy swooped for Sunderland when the likes of Lambert and Lennon and Petrov had edged him to the verges of O’Neill’s midfield.
His talent promised him the world. And then, in December 2003, Coventry’s Youssef Safri lunged over the ball in a televised Championship game that saw Sky Sports broadcast the now familiar warning: ‘We can’t show you that tackle again’.
“I knew him. I played with him at Coventry (on loan),” Healy says, sitting at the back of The Shed in Turner’s Cross.
“He phoned me up. It’s grand having a phone call and all that, but he more or less finished my career. Two years later, I’m out of contract, no money…
“I was in the Irish team. I was playing with Sunderland. I was let go from Sunderland. I was finished playing for Ireland.”
His fibula and tibia smashed. The same leg broke in training a year later. Then a fractured knee — 25 nightmarish months until Sunderland gave up on his talent.
“They said I was too much of a risk to get another contract. I was a bit annoyed at that because I broke my leg playing for that club. I understand sometimes it’s a business and all that but…
“I had a choice. I was thinking it’s not for me. I was going to retire. I was talked out of it. Keep going, see what happens. It’s a low time. You’re away, you’re training by yourself. In the gym by yourself. You’re putting in the hours.
“I worked really hard. Swimming in the mornings. Out on the bike. I don’t know, was it a drive to prove people wrong?”
Football got a different version of Colin Healy after that. But when you peeled away the talent, there were layers of courage and resilience underneath. There was an ability to deal with reality.
Yet the smell of a talent like his is so seductive that someone was always willing to take a punt. If not provide the time and space for true healing.
Livingstone, Barnsley, Bradford City, Ipswich, Falkirk. A trial at Crystal Palace.
“I wasn’t at that level anymore. I wasn’t. I knew I didn’t have it. I went to Ipswich and these places and I just struggled with the pace of it.
“And you’d always have it in the back of your mind. When I was younger I used to like a tackle. Go in and win it. I used to love that part of the game. But the leg broke the second time in just a normal 50-50. If it happened twice it could happen again. But you just get on with it.”
You just get on with it
He says it maybe 10 times.
“Sure, you think I could have done this, done that. But you can’t… You just get on with it.
“The most important thing was that I got back from it. People thought, you’re finished, but I got back playing at a great club and won one or two trophies.
“I worked very hard. It took me a few years to get back to anywhere near what I was. And I can only be grateful to Cork City for giving me the chance. When I came back at the start I wasn’t any great shakes. But City stuck by me.”
He won an FAI Cup medal in 2007, though he credits Paul Doolin, who managed City for the 2009 season, with piecing something in him back together.
“He really got me thinking about things. He got me back to a small bit of the player that I was. The drills, the training — he’s a fantastic coach and manager.
“It took me a while to get the confidence back. I had to change my game a small bit to maybe stay a bit more, rather than push on.”
Doolin recalls a man who knew the game inside out, but still had a hunger to learn.
“He was such a very good player. The career he would have had...
“The training was probably a bit different, it might have been tougher, I don’t know. Good players know if they’re being told the right things.
“I do remember a good chat we had in the office at the training ground. If I played some part, I’m delighted. That’s your role, to teach people. I obviously wasn’t teaching him. But maybe he got the impetus to get going again. And then he got the move back to Ipswich.”
Handling the truth
In his book, The Second Half, Roy Keane regrets being too hard on Healy.
“I told him he was moving his feet like a League of Ireland player. It was wrong. Colin was new to the club; I should have been bending over backwards for him. At Ipswich, I sometimes said the wrong things. Maybe I was trying too hard.”
But Healy is not the kind of guy who will supply the Keano controversy cottage industry with fresh raw material.
“I had no problem at all with him. If it was me and someone wasn’t doing it, you have to tell him. No problem with that at all.
“Roy was very good. I didn’t play a lot underneath him, but he was very good. And I take away things I learned from him.”
There was the treat of a League Cup semi-final first leg win over Arsenal, but there was acceptance too that this was now a level too high.
In his second spell at City, he played with the freedom of somebody at peace with the truth. He just got on with it.
“I was back home. I’m playing for the best club in the country, the biggest club. We were pushing for trophies. We were there or thereabouts. And there was a real buzz around things. I was enjoying it. The fans were good to me and I didn’t want to hold back.”
He was atop the ship, named League of Ireland player of the year in 2014. That iconic overhead kick against Pat’s. And he got back in touch with that taste for a 50-50, as team-mate Karl Sheppard testifies.
“I remember when I came in first, I was going in for a tackle and I’m thinking ‘this is my ball here’ and he comes in through the back of you and just completely cleaned me out. You’re flat on your back, you’re thinking: ‘Jeez, I’m in for a tough day’s training here’.”
He was the fundamental person at the club, but another enemy surfaced. Age had ticked up and John Caulfield began to use him more sparingly.
By this stage, he and the truth knew each other inside out.
“John was great to me. A great man-manager. You just want to play for him. Anyway, I’d never knock on his door. If John said I’m not playing, I’d take it. I was 36. I had fellas in the middle of the park like Bolger, Gearóid, Bucks.
"I knew they could cover the ground better than me. I was no fool. I had respect for John. I knew where he was coming from. I was getting to that age. I’m thinking a bit like a coach as well and I could see why he was doing it. I knew the time had come. But I hung in there…”
It was partly that ability to handle the truth that persuaded Caulfield to bring him in as City U19s coach four months ago.
“Colin is very mild-mannered. He’s low-key. He’s not the kind of guy who you’ll hear roaring across the pitches. But at the same time, when he’s coaching, everyone listens. If someone isn’t doing what he wants, he has no problem telling him.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people these days don’t want to hear the truth and the right advice. They want to hear the fantasy story.
You want people around who have been successful, who have high standards, and know success doesn’t happen by accident.
“You have to work your backside off and at the same time you’re going to get a lot of knocks.”
More than talent
By now City weren’t just getting Colin Healy’s talent. They got his life experience. And his character and ability to make sense of it and use it.
“Since he’s become involved, he’s had a major impact on the U19s and also on the whole underage structure.” Caulfield says.
“Sometimes the kids think it is all about on the pitch, but a lot of it is off the pitch. And how you prepare. That’s why I was so anxious to get him, because he sets the highest standards. A lot of young players don’t understand the standards that are needed.”
From this distance, Healy can look back at those early days, when he was promised everything, and see more than what-ifs. He can see what helped him survive.
“Sometimes when you look back and you look at these players, the likes of Larsson and Paul Lambert, what you remember most is the way they were around the training ground, the way they prepared for games.
“Larsson would score 50 goals and he’d come out every day and he’s training like it’s a game. There’s no messing about. That’s what I took away from it.
“Sometimes these kids come in to train and it’s like, it’s only training. But you’re here to practise, and if you don’t do it properly you’re not going to get better.”
He won’t tell you the best manager he played for. O’Neill, Dalglish, McCarthy. Kerr, Lambert, Ritchie, Rico, Doolin, Keane, Caulfield — they all saw something in him. He only vows to take something from them all.
“I was always interested. I’ve worked with so many coaches and managers. I’d always look at how they did things and how they took their training sessions. Always had an interest in passing drills or combination play or whatever. I picked up a lot of knowledge.
“At the moment I just want to go in and coach. I enjoy what I’m doing out on the training field. Putting on sessions for the lads. Just passing on what I’ve learned. You have to pass it on to someone.”
He has his A License and relished a stint with Tom Mohan and the Ireland U19 team which topped its Uefa Qualifying Round group in Waterford last month. “I know how the game is played but you have to learn how to get your points across to kids. And working with Tom was fabulous.”
There were just four home-based players in that Ireland squad, but the dream at City — at FORAS — is sustainable success built around the best youngsters from Cork and Munster staying at home to learn on the FAI’s pathway — U15, U17, U19.
The planned FAI Munster centre of excellence in Glanmire — City’s promised new base — should help. And behind the scenes, Caulfield and the club are building a structure for the pathway around City heroes like Healy, Billy Woods, Alan Bennett, and Dan Murray.
Healy is excited by the talent he sees around the place and believes it’s in the right place.
“Look at Seanie Maguire… Cork City made him an international player. I know he’s a good player, he’s been here and there. But he didn’t kick a ball at Dundalk. He came back here and Cork brought him onto the next level. That’s down to John Caulfield and John Cotter and all the other coaches.
“For me, any good kids around, if they train with the best players and play against the best around they’ll improve. You’re pushing yourself the whole time.
“There’s good coaches here. There’s a lot of knowledge at the club at the moment.”
The happy ending
Turner’s Cross has emptied. Another chorus of ‘Campeones’ spills from the dressing rooms below. Paul Bowdren’s Cork City U17 team has just won their SSE Airtricity League title, after a penalty shoot-out with Bohemians.
Colin Healy gets up off the seat in The Shed gingerly enough. The knees creak. Earlier, he was back in Bishopstown training with the first team.
“I’m miles off the pace,” he laughs. These days he’s fully at peace with that reality.
He is a courteous if cautious interviewee. The novelty of making headlines doubtless wore off after the thousandth comeback story.
A gentle request… “I don’t like to dwell too much on the past. I don’t want to make this a ‘poor me’ thing. There are plenty of people who were in a lot worse situations.”
His 12-year-old son Arran comes over to join him from where he has been celebrating on the pitch. Other kids recognise his dad… ‘Hey Heals!’ He asks one how the training is going. Makes a lad’s evening.
Tomorrow, father and son will travel up to the cup final with Colin’s brother. A chance to relive the perfect send-off he enjoyed at the Aviva Stadium last year.
His doesn’t read like a hard-luck story any more.
Arran and his sister Hollie got to grow up back home where their dad is loved. In a place where his talent finally got time and space to flourish.
He just got on with it. And the second version of Colin Healy still has plenty to offer the game.