David Healy: Linfield boss vows to find a way to recover after biggest-ever disappointment

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
'Gut-wrenching' - Linfield boss Healy on dramatic European exit

David Healy knew he and his Linfield players would pick themselves up and go again - he just didn't know how.

It was less than an hour since their agonising Europa Conference League play-off defeat by RFS and the Blues boss was feeling as disappointed as he has ever felt in football. He was, he admitted, struggling to find the words.

The former Northern Ireland, Leeds United and Rangers striker was visibly distraught having watched from the sidelines as his history-chasing Blues came within seconds of becoming the first Irish League team to reach the group stage of a European competition.

A 120th-minute own goal by stalwart Jimmy Callacher had earned the Latvians a 1-1 draw in Belfast and taken the tie into penalties, which the visitors won 4-2.

With joyous songs emanating from the victorious visiting dressing room, it was testament to how well he was fronting up to the assembled media in Windsor Park that Healy found time for a tongue-in-cheek quip about needing a litre of pineappleade to help him get over the disappointment.

"For now, I can't," the 43-year-old said when asked how he lifts himself from the setback his team suffered.

"I don't think I've been as disappointed in any time. Certainly in my managerial career. In my playing career I lost in a couple of play-off finals and when you commit to 46 games in the Championship and you lose, it is hard, because you have the summer to reflect before you return to pre-season and get back at it.

"How do I respond? Honestly, I couldn't put into words how I can respond personally. I will, as I always do. And I will make sure the players will, as they always do. We will get a response.

"It is going to be a huge ask now and something that we do need to pick ourselves up for is Sunday [when they play Carrick Rangers in the Irish Premiership].

"As a group and as a staff I can't pick myself off the floor at the minute. I have no doubt, though, that I will watch the game again a couple of times between tonight [Thursday] and tomorrow, beat myself up a little bit more. Then I'll get a litre of pineappleade and I'll be ready to go again.

"It's gut-wrenching. I feel for the staff, I feel for the players, the supporters and everybody involved in the football club. The group stage is where we wanted to be and could - and should - have been there tonight."

Watch: Heartbreak for Linfield as RFS seal UEFA Conference League group spot

Thursday night's second leg was delicately poised at 2-2, with RFS having scored last-gasp goals in the 88th and 96th minute to deny Linfield taking a 2-0 lead home from the first leg in Riga.

With Kirk Millar excelling in a more central role than usual, the Irish Premiership champions produced an impressive display at Windsor and should have won the game during 90 minutes.

However, a host of spurned chances - particularly four in a chaotic closing spell - meant they did not take the lead on the night until Kyle McClean's composed strike in the 104th minute.

It looked as if that would be the goal that clinched Linfield's historic place in the group stage - and the £2.4m (2.9m euros) windfall which that delivers - until that late, late Callacher OG forced a shootout in which Matthew Clarke had his penalty (Linfield's first) saved before Ethan Devine dragged their second wide.

"You can talk about all the sombre words in the world that you want, I don't think I can find any," Healy continued.

"I spoke to the players in the dressing room and I don't think I could find the words to try and sum up how proud I was of them and the extreme disappointment that I feel for them.

"So, a tough night. We, no doubt, as I always do, will front it up with the players and the staff, and we will go again. That was an incredible opportunity for us tonight and one that ultimately in the end got away from us."

'I'll be fine, I've been through the mire'

Jimmy Callacher
Callacher is supported by team-mates after the defeat

While unafraid to conceal his disappointment for a club he supported as a child, Healy's renowned mental toughness and resolve also came to the fore as he promised a strong reaction.

"For my emotions, I will be fine. I have been through the mire at times as a player, rollercoaster rides," he explained.

"I have had highs and lows as a player and as a manager, especially here [Linfield] dealing with things. I will react and respond in a positive manner."

Healy rued the loss through injury in extra-time of influential midfielder Chris Shields, while he also substituted the hard-working Kirk Millar - two players he felt may have scored a penalty had they still been on the pitch.

He had comforting words for experienced defender Callacher, as well as Clarke and Devine, but was unable to hide his frustration at an incident just seconds before the Latvians' crushing equaliser, when Eetu Vertainen broke and passed to Cammy Palmer who chose to shoot but found the keeper with a weak effort.

"I'm proud of our performance, I thought we were excellent tonight, some of our play was exceptional.

"It is no crime for a player to miss a penalty, I think the crime that we committed was probably in the 120th minute of the match when we were flooding forward to score a second.

"I have been a player and understand that the opportunity is there, there is nobody tracking, but we have got to either keep the ball, score or kick it into the 20th row of the empty stand.

"We have got to do a bit better, and that is not picking on the players who were breaking - of course there is a hunger [to score]. RFS go up the other end and we concede a poor goal.

"Again, it is not a crime to concede the goal in the manner that we did because nobody means to and I thought Jimmy when he came on tonight was exceptional. He has been an exceptional player for me and for Linfield since he has been here."