11 years ago today David Healy attained immortal status in the eys of Northern Ireland fans.
In hindsight, that night at Windsor Park was one of the most momentous in international football history.
Northern Ireland hosted Spain in Belfast in the second game of their 2008 European Championship qualifying campaign, and unsurprisingly entered the contest as overwhelming underdogs.
Lawrie Sanchez’s side had been beaten 3-0 at home by Iceland four days earlier in their first group game.
The visiting Spanish side – managed by Luis Aragones – were ranked seventh in the world at the time, and boasted players such as Raul, Xavi, Fernando Torres, Carlos Puyol and Xabi Alonso, to name but a few.
Fittingly, it was the one year anniversary of Northern Ireland’s shock win over England at Wembley, and magic was in the air once again.
Sanchez made four changes to the side which had been humbled by Iceland, bringing in two 18 year olds – Kyle Lafferty and Johnny Evans (for his international debut). Roy Carroll was restored as first choice goalkeeper, but had to be withdrawn through injury after just 11 minutes.
It was an unfortunate start to the clash, but things were about to get worse.
Three minutes later, Antonio Lopez danced past Keith Gillespie on the left flank and found Xavi in the box, and the Barcelona midfielder directed a volley past substitute goalkeeper Maik Taylor to hand the visitors an early lead.
Interestingly, Xavi’s volley was Spain’s 1000th international goal, but that fact was swallowed in the storm that was to come.
However, David Healy drew the home side level in the 20th minute after some calamitous Spanish defending. Kyle Lafferty rose highest in the box to steer a header towards goal, which caused panic and a lack of communication between the backtracking Xabi Alonso and Carles Puyol.
Alonso attempted to nod the bouncing ball back to Iker Casillas, but like all poachers, Healy was on hand – with his back to goal – to nick the ball past the Real Madrid goalkeeper from close range.
The clinical striker – who struggled to replicate his international form at club level – had also scored in the famous win over England a year earlier – and the ecstatic Northern Ireland fans began to chant “Are you England in disguise?” at the Spanish players.
Both sides exchanged chances through Lafferty and Torres respectively, and the reception the home players received at the half time whistle was a far cry from the boos which had rung around Windsor Park four days earlier.
However, Spain took the lead for the second time in the 52nd minute.
The ball broke to substitute Cesc Fabregas, who threaded a nice pass through to David Villa, who provided a composed finish to restore Spain’s lead.
In the 64th minute, Northern Ireland won a free-kick to the right side of the 18 yard box. Sammy Clingan stood over the ball, and pulled it back across the 18 yard line.
Healy was on the end of the training ground routine, and provided a beautiful first time finish into the top corner with the inside of his right foot.
Raul – who couldn’t have known on that special night in Belfast that he would never play for Spain again – almost restored Spain’s lead, but hit the post. Then, in the 79th minute, Real Madrid full back Michel Salgado misjudged a long, bouncing ball.
The ball bounced in front of Healy 30 yards from goal, and the forward produced a stunning chip which left Iker Casillas in no-man’s-land.
Despite a few late scares, Sanchez’s men held on to seal a famous victory in Belfast before the 14,500 full house crowd. Cue raucous scenes inside the stadium, as “Sweet Caroline” rang around the ground.
Spain were shell shocked. Aragones admitted after the game that questions would be asked back in Spain, and unsurprisingly both he and his players were slaughtered in the Spanish media.
Something needed to change, and it did.
Spain’s all-time top scorer Raul, who earned his 102nd cap that night, was the major casualty. The then Real Madrid hitman never played another international minute.
Spain lost their very next match to Sweden, but began to build something special.
“After that game there were things that needed to be done for the good of football,” Aragones later reflected.
“Some players weren’t performing as well as we would have liked and he (Raul) was one of them.”
Andres Iniesta, who was an unused substitute in Windsor that night, quickly became a key player in the Spanish midfield under both Aragones and later Vicente del Bosque. Torres and Villa grew further in prominence, and Spain developed one of the best international sides ever seen in Europe.
“After that game they dropped Raul and started to build the team around the Barcelona tiki-taka style of football and went on to achieve amazing success,” Healy, who remains Northern Ireland’s all-time top scorer with 36 goals, reflected when speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last year.
“It does make me feel proud when I think of that night, but not so great when I’m told it was 10 years ago.”
Spain went on to win Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 in the following years, winning hearts and minds with their attractive, attacking football.
11 years on, Northern Ireland continue to defy expectations.
Now managed by Michael O’Neill, they are guaranteed second place in their group for the 2018 World Cup behind world champions Germany, and could mathematically still catch Joachim Low’s side.
They have conceded just twice (to Germany) in the group, have won five games in a row for the first time in their history, and have conceded just seven goals in their last eight games.
Given their current momentum, don’t be surprised to see more special nights at Windsor Park in the near future.