King David reigns in Belfast
Considering that it's just three years since they embarked on a run of 1,298 minutes without a goal and 16 matches without a win, the sight of Northern Ireland at the summit of their UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying section represents something of a fairy tale. It certainly possesses one of the key ingredients: a hero.
David Healy might be toiling at the bottom end of England's second tier with his club, but it is for good reason that he has earned the moniker of 'King David' in Belfast and left manager Lawrie Sanchez hailing his him "a scoring machine". No-one, certainly, can match Healy's prolific current strike rate in the international arena, with his brace in last week's 2-1 win over Sweden taking his tally to nine goals in just six EURO 2008 qualifiers.
Lukas Podolski and Cristiano Ronaldo rank among the 27-year-old's closest rivals in the competition's scoring charts, but even a four-goal haul against San Marino still leaves Podolski two short, with the Portuguese another couple further back. For Northern Ireland, the result of Healy's heroics is that, despite being seeded sixth in their section and losing 3-0 to Iceland in their opening fixture, they now have clambered above the likes of Spain, Sweden and Denmark to lead the race to Austria and Switzerland.
Such is the mood in the province that one Belfast newspaper even advised its readers to book their flights for next summer's tournament, and Healy's profile can be best summed up by the fact that his exploits knocked Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley's historic political pact off the front pages. Then again, the Leeds United striker has long been considered a veritable living legend in these parts.
Evidence of that can be seen in the fact that his image sits alongside those of George Best and Pat Jennings on the mural adorning the Windsor Park footbridge, and no-one is to be found questioning the 27-year-old's place in such illustrious company. After all, Northern Ireland's previous record goalscorers, Colin Clarke and Billy Gillespie, both managed 13 goals over their entire international careers. Healy, capped 56 times, already has 29.
'The mark of an outstanding player'
"I've run out of words to describe David Healy," his manager, Sanchez, said after watching him sink Sweden. "We gave him two chances and he scored both of them, that's world-class finishing. And the great thing about David is that he is a very down-to-earth person. He does not see himself as a superstar."
Even Sweden coach Lars Lagerback was gracious enough to acknowledge the predatory talents of a player who had scored a hat-trick away to Liechenstein in his previous match to add to a memorable earlier treble against Spain. "They (Northern Ireland) have every chance of qualifying, particularly when you see how they make full use of Healy's fantastic scoring talent," said Lagerback. "It appears that everything he tries comes off. That is the mark of an outstanding player."
Healy himself has remained humble throughout, pointing out that Northern Ireland must still negotiate away fixtures in Spain and Sweden - both of whom have games in hand. Nevertheless, the bitter and not-so-distant memory of that record-breaking scoring drought also ensures that he will savour every second of this stint in the limelight.
"I played in all 14 of those games, lived every one of the 1,298 minutes when we couldn't buy a goal, and I draw inspiration from it now," he said recently. "It reminds me how things could be if I let my standards slip and it keeps driving me on. Now, I would always back myself to score in any situation. That's five goals in two games, and hopefully I can return to Leeds and score some goals to help the club stay in the Championship."
Herein lies the irony about Healy. Prolific at international level, he has yet to reach double figures in the English Championship this season and has even spent periods on the bench with a Leeds United side facing relegation to the country's third tier.
Club manager Dennis Wise even made the journey to Windsor Park last Wednesday in an attempt to identify how Northern Ireland succeed in getting the best out of his mis-firing striker, and left more perplexed than ever. His assistant, Gus Poyet, said afterwards: "We went to see if there was something different in his game and there was nothing. I swear, he does exactly the same for them as he does for us. It was the same effort and same quality. But he probably had a bit more luck because he has been hitting the post for us."
At that point, Healy had scored just four times in Wise's 26 games in charge, although he suggested that he could yet play a key role in Leeds' survival fight by adding to that meagre tally with the winner against Preston just 48 hours after his international heroics. Nevertheless, there remains considerable doubt about whether the marriage between Healy and the Yorkshire club is mutually beneficial, with Northern Ireland team-mate Keith Gillespie saying: "I don't think Leeds have been making the most of him. I am certain he would thrive in the Premiership, provided you played to his strengths."
A summer move to the top flight would certainly appear to be a strong possibility, and Healy has also spoken of being "flattered" at a link to Rangers after Walter Smith was spotted watching him shoot down the Swedes. Not that Northern Ireland fans will care. After all, regardless of his club travails, King David seems to remain more than capable of firing the province to unprecedented heights.