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Working with Martin McGuinness in a meat company, singing for the Dalai Lama and playing at the World Cup

Felix Healy looks back on his remarkable football career and life.

Felix Healy pictured during his stint as Finn Harps manager.
Felix Healy pictured during his stint as Finn Harps manager.
Image: INPHO

EVEN IF YOU completely ignore his career in football, Felix Healy has led a very interesting life.

The Dalai Lama, Martin McGuinness, Kenny Dalglish, The Troubles, the 1982 World Cup, the Undertones, Martin O’Neill and Eusebio are just some of the people and subjects that come up over the course of an hour-long conversation.

During childhood, Healy could see Derry City’s Brandywell stadium from his bedroom window. When he was very young, his mother would take him to the big gates of the ground, which opened about 15 minutes before full-time, to watch the climactic moments of matches.

As he grew older, Healy started attending games of his own accord. He was at Windsor Park in 1964 when Derry won the IFA Cup. A year later, the Candystripes prevailed in the Irish Football League for the first and only time. To this day, he can still rhyme off the names of Jimmy McGeough, Jim Crossan and the rest of that famous team.

I used to help in the Brandywell with the greyhounds and the upkeep of the stadium,” he adds. “My brother and I, and a couple of others, would help the old groundsman, a guy called Tommy Curran. It was a time when the pitch was lined with sawdust, there was very little grass.”

Healy, who could play as both a midfielder and a forward, went on to captain a Derry schools side, but by the time he was coming of age as a footballer, the Candystripes were no longer competing in the Irish league.

Security concerns relating to the Troubles had a major impact on the club in the early 1970s. Initially, with the Brandywell adjudged to be an unsafe area, they played ‘home’ fixtures 30 miles away in Coleraine, a majority unionist town. However, with most supporters unwilling to travel to their temporary base, it quickly became apparent that this plan was financially unsustainable and they were forced to withdraw from the league.

The Candystripes spent 13 years in the relative wilderness of junior football, before becoming part of the League of Ireland’s newly formed First Division ahead of the 1985-86 season.

And just like his boyhood club, as well as essentially everyone living in Derry at the time, Healy’s life was significantly impacted by the Troubles.

The teenage footballer was “on the march” on 30 January 1972, ‘Bloody Sunday,’  when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest against internment without trial. The mass shooting in the Bogside area of Derry resulted in the deaths of 14 people. Healy had been supposed to play a game that day in the Derry District League, but chose to partake in the march instead.

northern-ireland-the-troubles-bloody-sunday-londonderry A silent crowd form a cordon 10 or more deep, lining both sides of the 250 yards of road leading from St Mary's Church, Creggan Hill to the cemetery, to watch the funeral procession of those who died on "Bloody Sunday." Source: PA

“Everyone who grew up by the Brandywell knew who was involved and who wasn’t,” he says.

“At the time, when I was working, there were many dodgy situations, a lot of stuff that everyone went through. It wasn’t very nice, but it became the norm. I’ve said it before, it was incredibly stupid on all sides. 

“You’re talking about a time where there were British army foot patrols. If you were walking along the path up to the house, you’d get off the path, because some soldiers would give you a whack with a baton. There were one or two groups of people in the IRA that we didn’t want to bump into either.

“I’ve a strong interest in politics, but violence — as has been proved — doesn’t solve anything.

“My grandfather was a nationalist politician in Derry. My grandfather on my father’s side was a leading trade unionist.

“So politically, I would be savvy enough with regards the violence end of it, and it achieved nothing.”

Healy also got to know an individual who would soon become a key figure in the North — Martin McGuinness, the Irish republican Sinn Féin politician and future deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland — who he worked with as a youngster in the same meat company.

Martin and I had many long conversations — some of them not very kind. I had a very heated discussion with Martin when I was Derry City manager. It was a meeting that lasted a couple of hours. I’m not going to tell you the reasons for the meeting.

“I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but we knew one another. I didn’t agree with what they did — I’ll say no more.”

Even when Healy started playing for Sligo Rovers in the mid-1970s, the shadow of the Troubles was inescapable.

“We would go from Derry to Dublin. On the way back, you were stopped at an army checkpoint at Aughnacloy.

“Sometimes, you were sitting three or four cars back from the checkpoint, but you could be there for three or four hours — that was commonplace.

“Martin McGuinness’ brother Paul used to play for Sligo Rovers. We came from Cork one time. Around 4.30am, we arrived outside Derry. It was an army checkpoint. I think there was about seven or eight of us on the bus and we were all arrested and taken to an army camp called Piggery Ridge. But it comes with the territory — that was the time we lived in.”

portrait-of-queen Healy worked in the same meat company as Martin McGuinness. Source: Jeff Spicer

In that era in particular, finding forms of escape as a teenager seemed essential. As a youngster, Healy was obsessed with football, though he admits this feeling diminished to an extent as he grew older.

“I was lucky enough, I played in the first-ever Northern Ireland primary school cup final in 1966,” he remembers. “We lost to Mersy Street, whose star player at the time was [future Northern Ireland and Man United player] Sammy McIlroy.

“The following year, I also played in the final and we won the trophy. The Long Tower parish is actually the Brandywell parish — the church overlooks the Brandywell.

“Jim McLaughlin, Johnny Crossan, Liam Coyle — all the Brandywell football loyalty, they all went to the Long Tower school. I captained the team. We won the cup in Coleraine. I went to St Columb’s College, which overlooked the Brandywell as well. At 13 or 14, I left. I never felt the same about football after that. It’s just one of those things. To me, football is a game I played as a kid.

“Right throughout my career, I was singing. I was singing when I played for Sligo in ’75. I was still singing when I was managing Derry in 1997.

“We won the league in 1997 when I was the manager. I went and did a gig before I joined the party.

“If you’d asked me would I rather be singing than playing football, probably yeah.

People saw me as a footballer who sang. In reality, it was probably the other way around.

“Back in the early days, it was all covers. The band I was in, we were doing a lot of Eagles stuff. I think the people of Derry knew who The Eagles were before the rest of the UK.”

One of the bands that supported Healy’s group were The Undertones, who would go on to record the famous hit ‘Teenage Kicks’ and become a seminal act in the burgeoning punk movement. Did Healy always envisage Feargal Sharkey and co making it big?

“Not the first couple of times I heard them. I know the boys: Damian [O'Neill], John [O'Neill] and Micky Bradley, the bass player — he works in Radio Foyle up here.

“To be fair to them, over an 18-month period, as a band, they got their act together playing-wise. But at that point [when they supported us], they were kids and they were learning.”

On his own music career, Healy adds: “I was always the front guy in bands. And I wish I could have been the keyboard player or drummer. Even to this day, I do a lot of gigs on my own. I was doing three or four gigs a week until this [coronavirus crisis] surfaced.”

Source: UnionSquareMusic/YouTube

And while his music career may have meant more to him than football, Healy certainly had no shortage of talent when it came to sport. He started out with short stints at Sligo, Distillery and Finn Harps.

He says of his spell with the Ballybofey side: “It was full of laughs and a great education — a lot of Derry guys there, a lot of travel, with some great players.

“I played against Everton one week and all of a sudden, I find myself sitting in a hotel in England and I’ve just signed for Port Vale. I’m saying: ‘What the fuck have I done?’ I was only there two weeks and Leicester City wanted to sign me and pay 50 grand. Three months later, it was Christmas time, which was a nightmare. To be fair to Port Vale, they gave me four weeks off.”

Healy played regularly in his two years with Port Vale, who were in the English fourth tier at the time. An unfortunate and deeply sad set of circumstances, including the breakdown of his marriage and the tragic death of his 21-year-old brother, prompted a return home in 1980.

“There were a lot of family reasons for it, my brother died in a car accident the day before I was due to be transferred to Bolton Wanderers.

“My mother at that time wasn’t well. My son, who was two years of age, wasn’t great, and he was living back in Derry.

“It was one of those where I was the eldest of 10 kids. My brother’s death was an awful thing to go through obviously — he was next to me.

A few years previously, my young sister, who was two and a half, got knocked down and killed outside the house. My mother’s mother died three weeks later.

“When my brother died in ’79, it was just a culmination [of tragic events]. I decided to come home and it was the right thing to do.”

Healy would go on to enjoy a seven-year spell with Coleraine, winning two Ulster Cups during that period, as well as twice being a runner-up in the Irish Cup final.

“Obviously, with Derry City not being involved at that time, there was a lot of Derry fellas [playing for Coleraine].

“The minibus was owned by the football club, but it stayed in Derry.”

A young Michael O’Neill, who would go on to play for sides including Newcastle United, Hibernian and Coventry, in addition to managing Shamrock Rovers, Northern Ireland and Stoke, was part of the squad.

“Even as a kid, Michael was ambitious,” he recalls. “He always had aspirations to go to England. I remember, at an awards dinner at the end of the season one night, him asking me about one or two options that he had.

“If I was really ambitious, I would have stayed in England at 22 and never gone back. But not everybody’s the same — some people are more driven than others. I chose to do other things with my life and we’re not all the same, but he was certainly driven.”

stoke-city-v-hull-city-sky-bet-championship-bet365-stadium Stoke City manager Michael O'Neill. Source: Barrington Coombs

1982 was arguably Healy’s career peak. At club level, he was named both Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year and Ulster Footballer of the Year.

On the back of these impressive performances, he was called up to the Northern Ireland national team.

He made his debut against Scotland in a British Home Championship match, before featuring amid a 3-0 defeat to Wales a month later. Billy Bingham also went to watch Healy play in the Irish Cup final, and his performances were ultimately good enough to convince the manager to include him in the squad for the 1982 World Cup. To this day, he remains the only footballer to play at the tournament while being on the books at a Northern Irish club.

“It was a strange time. All of a sudden, you were thrown into this cavalcade of football.

“You’re playing against some of the top players in Britain that you watch on TV.

“I was lucky enough to play against Kenny Dalglish when he was at Celtic, to play against Ian Rush and people of that ilk in the space of a couple of weeks.

But then you go to the World Cup. It’s the greatest time in the world and the most boring time. Nowadays, people have their phones, the internet and everything else. Back in those days, we did the same thing for six weeks in a row and we had five football matches. The highlight of the day was going for a walk. So I’m well used to this [current] lockdown.”

Northern Ireland drew their opening match 0-0 with Yugoslavia. Healy then featured for the first and only time in the second game, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Honduras, coming on to replace future Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill.

“I was warming up for ages. It was one of those where I knew before the match started that I was going to go on. The longer it goes on, you’re saying to yourself and you’re saying to the manager, ‘get me on’.

“When you go on your first run and you try to breathe, it’s like taking a big deep breath in a sauna. It was incredible, the heat. It was like, 100 degrees. It was just horrendous. But it was the quickest time ever [being on the pitch].

“We spent 12 days in Brighton before we went to Valencia. It was warmer in Brighton. But you can do all the training you like, when the gun goes off and you’re on, particularly when you’re coming on as a sub against everybody else who’s had an hour or so, it takes a bit of time [to adapt].

“We always felt we had to beat Honduras to have any chance. After it finished 1-1, we thought we weren’t going to beat Spain and were probably going to go home. There was a lot of disappointment.

“After the match, I met Charlie Stuart, who was one of the doyens of the sports journalism world in the Republic of Ireland and he was originally from up north. We’re getting on the flight [to Madrid] afterwards, and Charlie says to me: ‘Imagine a wee fella from Derry playing in the World Cup.’”

Source: pamemundial/YouTube

The Honduras setback would be followed by arguably the greatest moment in Northern Ireland’s football history — a 1-0 victory over host nation Spain to see them through to the next stage.

But Healy understandably has mixed feelings about that unforgettable occasion. He was due to come off the bench as a substitute on the night, but a red card for Mal Donaghy resulted in a change of plans, with the Irish League star missing out in favour of a defensive reinforcement.

“Being there for the night of the win against Spain was bittersweet for me. I wanted so much to play. It was one of the few occasions that I couldn’t wait to get on the pitch. I was just about to go on and Mal got sent off and the whole thing changed. It was great that we won, but I didn’t play.

“Of course, you enjoy the moment. I always think about the match, it was like a Hollywood picture. The scenes on the pitch at the end and outside the dressing room, it was just full of cameras, Eusebio was there along with a lot of top people from around the world, who were working for TV.

“Going back to the hotel afterwards, an incredible night was had. I actually sang ‘Danny Boy’ for everybody. That caused a bit of a row, because all the TV guys wanted to knock off, but they were asked to stay on to film some of the celebrations.

I stupidly had a bit of a huff [after the game] and Bingy left me out of the substitutes for the final two matches, and he did right, because I was wrong. I wanted to be on the pitch that much, and one or two others didn’t, which was surprising [winger Johnny Jameson notably turned down a place on the substitutes' bench against France, because playing a game on a Sunday would have conflicted with his religious beliefs].”

Northern Ireland ultimately bowed out in the second group stage. A 2-2 draw with Austria was followed by a 4-1 loss against France. Had Bingham’s side won the latter game, they would have advanced to the semi-finals.

Although Healy had to be content with just one appearance, he evidently still made a positive impression.

“I could have gone to Luton Town after the World Cup in ’82, but Port Vale had my registration in England until 1993.

“Looking back on it now, it’s probably the one decision I do regret. I should have gone.

“I know West Brom came in for me when Ron Atkinson was manager, because he told me. He was working for ITV — he was based in the same hotel as us in Spain [during the World Cup]. Apparently, Port Vale had also promised Terry Venables at Crystal Palace that I was going there. But when you’re 22 or 23, time doesn’t go as quick as it goes now.

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“Between the FA, Port Vale, Coleraine, [the situation got complicated], but if I’d really wanted to go, I could have gone.”

jm Jim McLaughlin brought Healy to Derry.

And while another move across the water never materialised, Healy would instead enjoy the most successful period of his career, in terms of silverware, after finally joining hometown club Derry City in 1987. He was subsequently part of Jim McLaughlin’s famous treble-winning team.

“We had runners and we had players. We could mix it when we had to, and we could play when we had to. 

“Jim had the best players, but you’ve got to know who they are too. When Jim signed Mick Neville, he was playing outside left for Drogheda. And he became one of the best centre-backs in League of Ireland history. He knew where to play people, and he knew who could play with who.

“I came to Derry at 32. I was playing most weeks on one leg and I played for four years there. I had that many bad injuries, I couldn’t really train — Jim wouldn’t allow me to train.

“He was fortunate in that Shamrock Rovers [went into financial decline]. I was with Jim the day he signed [a number of their players] in Dublin.

“I was going to see the Shamrock Rovers physio, because it looked as if my career was over. My abductor muscle had basically haemorrhaged in the cup final against Dundalk. 

“So I was with them the day we signed Paul Doolin, Mick Neville and Kevin Brady. Noel Larkin had retired two or three times, but Jim always talked him out of it.

“It was later on in the year when John Coady came, but he was in and out of the team.

I think Noel King said one time, it’s the Rovers Reserves team. But Liam Coyle was 19, Paul Curran was 19, Paul Carlyle, another local Derry lad, was 20. Jonathan Speak was from Sion Mills, he was only 21. Pascal Vaudequin was just 22 or 23, from France. So it was a real mixture. And all those guys were really good players.

“Jim McLaughlin and I became great friends. It was the anniversary last year, 30 years. It was a great time to be involved, I just wish I had been a bit younger.

“I talk about others being extremely driven — it was one of the few times that I was really driven, when I won the league. They only ever won three leagues — in ’65, the treble side and then the team that I had in ’97.

“But when you win, it becomes a different kettle of fish, because you’ve done it.

“It goes back to how ambitious you are as a person. Jim would have been driven to win leagues [constantly]. I was never like that, I was just a different animal.

“We should have won the league the following year as well. It was crazy, because we played an awful lot better and lost the League Cup final in extra-time, we lost a crazy game at Bray in the semi-final of the FAI Cup and we lost the league to St Pat’s by three points.”

Source: Vinny Cunningham/YouTube

Despite the great memories of 1989, Healy says he ultimately derived more satisfaction from triumphing as a manager eight years later.

“There was the most incredible pressure involved when you’re from Derry at the Brandywell.

“You want to win, and when I won the league, that was my greatest achievement. I did it without spending a great deal of money.

“I was lucky that the Bosman ruling came in. I moved on Bosman before anybody else, because people kept telling me ‘it’s not going to happen’. I kept telling them it was. I was proved right.

“We probably should have won the double as well, but Tony O’Dowd’s brother sadly had a heart attack and died two days before the cup final. 

“Once you’ve won, you start to look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture is the state of football and how the club is run. And I’m not just talking about Derry, I’m talking about all clubs. League of Ireland, for example, is just a graveyard of clubs, who’ve gone to the wall and come back.

“It’s just a vicious never-ending circle. It’s still the same. And [nearly] everybody’s clinging on by their fingertips every week. There are certain people that are driven and want to win championships [all the time]. But if you leave the club in a terrible state… I just couldn’t do that. There are other people who do.”

In addition to four years at Derry, Healy also had a stint with Coleraine.

“We put a great team together, a team that should have won a league. 

I came and took the Derry job [after a year with Coleraine], even though I thought it was far too early for me. One of the reasons I came was because I knew I wasn’t going to stay and manage at the top level [for an extensive period]. I think anyone who manages a football club is crazy. There are exceptions, but usually you either need the money, or you’ve got an ego problem. By and large, it’s a 24-hour day headache.”

Healy resigned from the Derry job in 1998, having guided them to league and FAI Cup titles. It would be another six years before his next job in management, which saw him instantly secure a spot in the Premier Division with Finn Harps.

“[Promotion] is the be all and end all at Finn Park. Why it is, I’ve absolutely no idea, but that’s what they wanted, and I should have left once they got promotion.

“I tried to help pay their bills, and make sure people were paid every week, but that doesn’t seem to be important to some. They want to win matches. And you can’t continue to win matches and pay people. To win matches, you need better players, and to get better players, you need to pay more money, and it’s money you don’t have.” 

derry Derry Manager Felix Healy and Liam Coyle in 1997.

While maintaining an interest in certain teams close to his heart, Healy has left football behind for the most part, and is more focused on playing local gigs these days. Appreciative audience members over the years have included the Dalai Lama, who took in a performance by Healy in 2017, when he visited Derry.

The event, which celebrated the work of the Children in Crossfire group, was arranged by Richard Moore, who was blinded as a 10-year-old by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier during the Troubles in 1972.

He’s the Dalai Lama’s hero. And Richard used to sit with a commentator at the Derry City matches by the dog track, so the commentator could tell him what was going on. Richard ended up a director when we won the league in ’97. So we’ve been good friends and have played in a band together.

“But the Dalai Lama is just amazing to see. When I came out to sing my song [a cover of Lionel Richie’s 'Love, Oh Love'], I went straight to shake his hand onstage.

“His security people were with him, and they were sort of half rushing onto the stage to see what’s he doing over there.”

The 64-year-old father-of-three and grandfather-of-five adds that the moment was an “amazing experience,” but the phrase could just as easily apply to his life to date.

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Paul Fennessy

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