“Absolutely no chance!”
That’s Rhys Healey’s response when asked what he would have said if, while on loan at Colchester United and Dundee, he had been told he would one day face Lionel Messi.
And that’s something he could do next season, after his goals helped Toulouse promote to Ligue 1.
Manchester-born Healey told talkSPORT: “[Colchester and Dundee] were my most difficult loans. I had them when I was young, inexperienced, and didn’t know what to expect.
“At that time I would have thought I would have been in England somewhere and probably not as well as I am right now.
“It’s been a long and hard road to get to where I am now.”
And that road eventually led him to the south of France and, more specifically, to Toulouse, where the 20 goals he scored in Ligue 2 propelled Les Violets into the French top flight.
But, as he said, it hasn’t been an easy journey to get to where he is now.
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After moving to Wales as a teenager, the striker began his career with Welsh Premier League side Connah’s Quay Nomads before Cardiff signed him aged 19.
A handful of appearances for the Bluebirds followed, with his first coming against Chelsea in 2013, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made his debut against Jose Mourinho’s Blues.
But Healey found himself on loan regularly, first to Colchester and Dundee, then to Newport County and Torquay United, before moving to MK Dons and deciding to stay.
He signed permanently for the Ligue 1 side in 2019 (after helping them get promoted from Ligue 2 during a loan spell a season earlier), scoring 11 goals in 18 games, before the COVID pandemic does not shorten the season.
Healey was settled, in career form, and playing under Russell Martin – whom he describes as the ‘best manager I’ve had by an absolute mile’ – but a call from Toulouse president Damien Comolli was enough to put him off. persuade to make the bold move across the English Channel.
The former Tottenham and Liverpool director of football has approached Healey over a potential move to Europe – something that’s completely out of the blue.
“I was very shocked,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect foreign clubs to come looking for me.
“I was just enjoying my day with some of the MK Dons players and my agent called me and said Toulouse were interested in me.
“Something pulled me into this and made me come here and challenge myself.
“I think that was how badly they wanted me to come and I think it was right for me to go and challenge myself in this league.”
Healey’s first season at the club was a success on a personal level, having scored 15 goals, but Toulouse lost their promotion play-off final to Nantes.
Former Nottingham Forest manager Philippe Montanier was then appointed ahead of the 2021/22 season, and he brought them back into the French top flight for the first time since 2019.
Montanier’s stay at the City Ground lasted just seven months after a disappointing spell and, while Healey was apprehensive upon his arrival, he was quickly put at ease after the first conversation with his new boss.
“I didn’t know what to expect [when Montanier came in],” he said.
“But when I met him, his first words were, ‘Fuck English, I love an English player!’ So, I was happy to hear that.
“He would be the first to tell me that I didn’t play very well, but he told me that it was normal to have bad games and that I was going to take the lead again next week.
“It was an amazing feeling to be loved like that. It’s all about trust, and having him trust me week after week has made my game even better this year.
Toulouse’s promotion means Healey will play in Ligue 1 next season, against Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Marseille and Lille.
While it seems likely that a few PSG superstars could leave the club this summer, Messi is likely to stay in the French capital.
Healey is a confident player on the pitch – but off that’s another story, and his introversion could see him miss out on one of the most sought-after football shirts in the world.
He said: “[Messi]is like a god in football. Even being on the same pitch as him would be mind-boggling.
“But I’m not sure I would ask him for his jersey because I’m a bit shy when it comes to seeing great players like that!
“But, if I have the opportunity to share the same pitch as him, it will be something that I will remember for the rest of my life and tell my children because he is one of the greatest. footballers to ever walk this planet.
“It’s just amazing to be able to compete in the same league as him.”
His nervousness also nearly saw him miss Eden Hazard’s shirt when he made his Cardiff debut against the Belgian superstar, before a touch of class from the now Real Madrid man corrected that.
Healey said: “I remember when I was on the pitch, I was just watching [Hazard] and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ Sometimes I didn’t even look at the ball!
“I walked into the dressing room, everyone was applauding me, then the kitman just came in with his shirt on for me.
“He had told the kitman to come and give it to me. I’m really shy if I don’t know people and I’m still a little bummed that I didn’t sign him because it was the last time he wore No. 17.
“But my dad has this now, I don’t think I’ll ever see him again!”
There have been reports linking Healey with a return to England this summer, with West Ham and West Brom both interested in the 27-year-old.
But he insists he and his family are happy on the continent and, when it comes to football, he has only one thing on his mind.
“What will be will be, I will continue to score goals.”
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