David Healy is relishing the prospect of managing in the Champions League for the first time.
Northern Ireland’s record scorer has played for Manchester United, Leeds, Fulham, Sunderland and Rangers, scored some of the most iconic goals in his country’s history and led Linfield to a treble, but for all that has gone before there is a sense that tonight’s game with San Marino side La Fiorita will be a special experience for Killyleagh’s favourite son.
The Blues boss says: “I can’t wait. I’m excited. I knew when we won the league the joys that would come with it.
“I’ve watched and been involved in Champions League matches as a player, I’ve been in and around European football as a coach and I’ve seen what nights like this give. It’s another big night and we want to make it a great night.”
Just don’t mention the ‘C’ word. Healy didn’t in last night’s press conference.
In a 15-minute question and answer session with the media at Windsor Park, the 37-year-old rather skilfully avoided saying ‘Celtic’ even though he was quizzed on the prospect of playing Brendan Rodgers’ Invincibles in the next round.
Since the draw was made in Switzerland last week, Healy has been emphatic in his desire to focus only on La Fiorita. On the eve of the first leg at home to the San Marino outfit, he made his point without uttering the name of the club who he hopes to face in the second qualifying phase.
Asked about whether the possibility of playing Celtic and all the headlines surrounding the date, time and ticket arrangements of such a fixture, had been a distraction, Healy said: “No. All we have been concentrating on is playing La Fiorita. That’s it. Our only focus is on the game at home against them and the return leg next week.
“They will be given the utmost respect because they are champions of their country, as are we. We know what the prize potentially is whether it had been anyone else in the second round.
“Financially in Europe it has always been important so it doesn’t matter who the carrot is in the next round.”
On how to keep thoughts of going toe to toe with Scott Sinclair or Scott Brown out of his players’ heads, Healy stated: “Other people can talk about whatever; they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t talk about it to their mates or read papers, but one thing we won’t do is disrespect La Fiorita.
“Other people are bringing up things they maybe shouldn’t bring up but sometimes that doesn’t surprise you in this country.
“I’ve played against so called lesser sides for Northern Ireland to know how tough it can be when it is built up that you should win quite comfortably. I’m sure La Fiorita will be no mugs.”
Forget Celtic then. For Linfield this is all about beating a side who in 10 attempts have never won a game in European competition.
Healy will have to do it without influential defender Jamie Callacher who is injured. Everyone else is fit, including new signings Robert Garrett, Jordan Stewart and Andy Mitchell brought in to supplement a squad that won the Irish League, Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield last season.
“It’s our first game since last season’s Irish Cup final and it is a big one for us,” said Healy.
“People asked questions about us handling the pressure in the Cup final and I think we answered them. Hopefully we can take the performance we had in the Cup final into the La Fiorita game.”
Healy says his players returned in pre-season fit and ready, but added that they have no divine right to progress in Europe.
While asking for patience from the Linfield supporters, he knows there will be a fierce demand to win too. There always is at Windsor Park.
With a smile on his face he said: “No matter who we play against we are expected to win. If we played Real Madrid at Windsor Park our fans might expect us to win the home leg and run them close to the second leg. That’s expectation. I understand that. I love it.
“I love the passion and drive you get from the supporters because that makes me hungry to bring more success to this club.”
Kick-off at Windsor Park tonight is at 7.45pm.