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David Healy, Sir Alex Ferguson's most successful coaching protege from Man United, is ready for step up

Thirty-six of Sir Alex Ferguson's players from his 27 years at Manchester United have followed him into management, and none of them have won more league titles than David Healy.

The Linfield manager is the answer to the quiz question that's likely to leave most United supporters tapping "Who is the most successful Fergie player in management?" into the search engines on their phones. Even Healy himself is surprised by his status.

"When you think of all the great names that have played for Sir Alex and gone into management, I'm a bit surprised by that, to be honest," Healy told ESPN.

"I wasn't a big United star. I only played three games for the first team, but I lived and breathed the club for seven years from the age of 14 and my football principles were all forged by my time at United, but still, to be mentioned as the boss' most successful player in management is very special."

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When United were at their peak under Ferguson, it seemed inevitable that players like Steve Bruce, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane would take their motivational qualities as United captains into a successful coaching career. The same applied to Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But while all of the above -- and many more -- have gone from playing under Ferguson at Old Trafford to management, only Laurent Blanc, who spent two years at United right at the end of his career, can claim to have won as many league titles as the four achieved by Healy since taking charge of Northern Irish champions Linfield in 2015. Gordon Strachan sits just behind both, with three titles at Celtic.

Blanc, who was fired by Qatari club Al Rayyan last month, won four Ligue 1 titles -- one with Bordeaux and three with Paris Saint-Germain -- between 2009 and 2016, but with Linfield sitting top of the Northern Irish Premiership ahead of the six-team title playoffs, Healy is on course to win a fifth championship this season and move clear of Blanc as the leading Ferguson protégé when it comes to league championships.

Even though his management style has been shaped by a playing career under managers such as Walter Smith, David Moyes, Roy Hodgson and Keane, Healy says that Ferguson's influence is clear.

"Walter Smith had an aura, a presence, like Sir Alex, while David Moyes was brilliant for me at Preston," Healy said. "And I loved playing for Roy Keane because I respected his honesty and refusal to deal in bulls---. I still think he can be a top manager.

"But while you have to be your own man as a manager and follow your own beliefs, there are three principles Sir Alex was always big on, and the same applies with me: good time-keeping, hard work and honesty. I expect the same from my players at Linfield that Sir Alex expected of every one of us at United.

"Sir Alex set the tone by being the first into the training ground and the last one to leave, and I am the same, getting in at 8 a.m. and staying until late afternoon. He also knew everybody -- all the players, at every level, the coaches, the families of the young kids. I take great pleasure in watching our Academy youngsters on Tuesday and Thursday night, speaking to their parents.

"Sir Alex always knew my dad as Clifford, not Mr. Healy -- that attention to detail, the family values, has always stuck with me."

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In Belfast, managing Northern Ireland's most successful club -- Linfield and Scottish champions Rangers share a world record of 55 domestic titles -- requires more than a previous connection to Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United to succeed and earn the respect of the supporters. There's a demand for success similar to the expectations that have weighed United down since Ferguson retired in 2013, and it proved a heavy burden when Healy took charge seven years ago.

Linfield had won nothing for three years prior to Healy. David Jeffrey, who had won a record 31 trophies in 17 years as manager, left the club in 2014, and his successor, Warren Feeney, quit after just 17 months in charge, leaving Healy to pick up the pieces in his first job in management.

"I won my first game in charge, but the following month, we lost four times and every single week, I was picking up the newspaper and I had broken another record," Healy said. "Linfield hadn't lost three successive league games since the 1950s, but we lost four in a row and that hadn't happened since the 1920s.

"So you start wondering, 'Am I right for management?' I'm sure the fans and the board were thinking that, and there were plenty who were saying, 'I told you so,' because it was my first job and that it was too big for me. But I used it as a springboard, started to make changes on and off the pitch and put so many hours into the job so that I would be successful.

"I wanted young players, hungry players, good professionals who tell me to worry about somebody else when they say they want to play after two months out with an injury. That's where we are at now. We've won three successive league titles, enjoyed good runs in Europe that have made big money for the club and everybody wants to beat us, wants us to fail. You use that to build a siege mentality and relish the moments when, like Sir Alex's United used to, you win with a goal in the last minute because of the work ethic and determination of your players."

Healy's success at Linfield has been recognised by Ferguson, with the former United manager personally praising Healy for his work during a visit to Belfast three years ago. "I don't know if somebody had primed him, but Sir Alex said I was doing really well and doing a good job," Healy said.

Although Linfield have become a winning machine under Healy, he admits it can be a draining experience managing in Northern Ireland. As a player, he earned star status during a 13-year career for Northern Ireland that saw him score a national record 36 goals in 95 appearances. The only goal in a 1-0 win against England in Belfast in 2005, followed by a hat trick against Spain a year later, ensured his place among the greats of Northern Irish football to the extent where there can sometimes be no escape.

"I appealed against a six-match touchline ban in 2017," said Healy, who was sent from the dugout three times in one season and sanctioned accordingly, "and the hearing was held in the David Healy Suite at Windsor Park.

"You couldn't make it up. And I lost the appeal!"

Despite his trophy-winning résumé, Healy has zero expectations of being on United's shortlist as they look to recruit the club's fifth permanent manager since Ferguson, but his ambitions stretch beyond maintaining success at Linfield. Ferguson was 44 when he made his big move to England, leaving Aberdeen for United in 1986, and after making more than 400 senior appearances in English football, the 42-year-old Healy says he is determined to test himself at a higher level.

"I don't want to stay at Linfield forever, and the club know that," Healy said. "I appreciate everything I've learned in six-and-a-half years here, from building a team to dealing with directors asking why you are doing this and why you are doing that when things are a little bit sticky in terms of results. It has opened my eyes to management.

"I have two years left on my contract, but you don't always see your contracts out because everyone has a shelf-life. What I won't do is leave Linfield on negative terms -- I want to leave when we are successful. But I want to test myself, be that in England, Scotland, Spain or America, and I will know when the time is right for that."

If Healy and Linfield can make it four successive titles this season, that time may be sooner rather than later.