Latvia v Northern Ireland: Healy the natural-born thriller

Shearer hails striker who is rapidly rising up the ranks of international scorers
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Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney, Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Shearer; when David Healy flicked his head to nod in the first Northern Ireland goal against Liechtenstein 11 days ago, the poacher from County Down joined some of the great goalscorers of England and Scotland. Healy had reached their magicfigure of 30 international goals.

When Healy then added an audacious second, he moved past the famous five on to 31. The 28 Wales goals of Ian Rush had already been surpassed in March with Healy's winning brace against Sweden. That followed a hat-trick against Spain.

Healy is in some company, and on Saturday against Latvia in Riga he starts hunting down the next on the list, Michael Owen, on 37 goals. That Owen has played 83 times for England, to Healy's 57 appearances for Northern Ireland, says something about Healy's strike-rate. On the same night as the Liechtenstein game, Robbie Keane scored twice for the Republic of Ireland in Denmark also to reach 31 goals, the highest tally for the Republic.

Keane and Healy are Irishmen united, but it was Keane's 73rd international. Healy's goals record compares favourably, yet when he turned out for Fulham against Keane's Tottenham yesterday it was only his sixth appearance in the Premier League. He is 28.

"David Healy's always hadthis question mark against him because he's not been in the Premier League," an admiring Shearer said, "but at Fulham he's got two goals already and should have three. He's doing really well and he deserves his chance. Now he's got to carry that on.

"He's done incredibly well, he started scoring under Sammy McIlroy, then Lawrie Sanchez and now it's Nigel Worthington. I hoped he would go on and get past it [30 goals] and he has.

"And it's all right saying, 'It's only Northern Ireland,' but some of the teams he's scored against have been top-quality and some of the goals have been brilliant."

Part of Shearer's admiration stems from the journey Healy has had to make. The boy from Killyleagh went to Manchester United as a teenager but played only once in the League for them, a 31-minute appearance as a replacement for Ryan Giggs against Ipswich at Old Trafford in December 2000. He hit the bar. Having loaned him to Port Vale, Sir Alex Ferguson then sold the 21-year-old Healy to Preston for £1.5m, and the Irishman had five seasons there, with a loan spell at Norwich with Worthington in between. Three years ago, he joined Leeds United and stayed there until last season's relegation. Leeds dropped to England's third division as Healy switched to its first.

"He's sort of done it the hardest way round, hasn't he?" Shearer said. "Going from scoring in the Championship to doing it internationally, that's not easy, believe me. There is a huge difference in scoring in the Championship to scoring in the Premier League, and international football is the same size of step up again."

Healy's ability to adjust is proven. With 11 goals already in qualification for Euro 2008, Northern Ireland have been led to second in Group F, and while there are hazardous trips to Sweden and Spain to come, Latvia offer an example of what can be done. They reached Euro 2004 in Portugal, finishing second to Sweden in their group and beating Turkey in a play-off.

"We're confident, expectations have gone up again," said Aaron Hughes, Northern Ireland's captain and now a Fulham colleague of Healy's. Hughes will miss Latvia through injury, though he hopes to be back for the qualifier in Iceland four days later. But he knows who to rely on in his absence.

"I've known David since we were about 13, we were both at the Manchester United school of excellence in Belfast," Hughessaid. "Then I joined him at the boys' team, Lisburn Youth. And, yes, he was a starlet then; at Lisburn we'd sometimes win 7-0 or 8-0 and David would get six.

"It's a very successful club in Northern Ireland, with boys always linked to clubs across the water. He went to Manchester United at 16 and I went to Newcastle, but we continued to play together with Northern Ireland at age-group level. So for 13 or 14 years we've been in the same team. And all that time he has scored goals, that's what David does. It's no surprise to me, because he just has this instinct about when the ball will drop and 75 per cent of the time he's right.

"Some people say he's not the biggest and not the quickest, but he is still tough and fast – he's very deceptive. You see him up against big Swedish or Danish defenders and he gives as good as he gets. He's great at holding the ball up, and once he's laid it off he heads straight for the box. It's just natural to him, just as it was to Shearer. Every so often you come across someone who's naturally good at what they do."