Usually in east Belfast the murals are of men wearing balaclavas and carrying machine guns but, on Albertbridge Road, there is an exception to the rule. “We are not Brazil, we are Northern Ireland” says a slogan in bold letters on the adjacent wall. It is a quote from the former Northern Ireland manager, Lawrie Sanchez, and the painting on the end of the red-brick terraced street is of David Healy slamming the ball into England’s net. Paul Robinson is diving in the Windsor Park mud and Ashley Cole is looking on miserably. It is the moment, in Sanchez’s words, when Healy “achieved immortality”.

Two years have passed since that 1-0 victory and the hero of the night is doing a pretty good job at making sure he is more than just a memory. Not many people would have imagined that a member of the Leeds United team who were relegated to League One last season could eclipse the likes of Thierry Henry, Fernando Torres as the most prolific striker in the European Championship qualifiers. Yet Healy has already struck 11 times in Northern Ireland’s group. Or to put it another way, he has single-handedly accumulated more goals than Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch and any other England striker have managed between them. And the annoying thing, he says, is that he could, maybe should, have had a couple more “were it not for bad finishing”.

Healy is a popular, feet-on-the-ground kind of guy and at the Irish team hotel yesterday he was quick to highlight the role of his team-mates and the fact that only eight of the original 24-man squad play in the Premier League. He was modest, too, complaining that he felt he had let down Leeds before his summer move to Fulham. Yet the 28-year-old, like all top strikers, is aware of his own worth and he can cherish his international record, with 31 goals in 57 caps.

“I’ve scored more than I could ever have imagined,” he says. “I’m not 6ft 2in and I can’t do the 100 metres in 10 seconds. People say I’m not quick enough, that I’m not tall enough, that I’ve got no pace. But if you’ve got that striker’s instinct, if you know where the ball is going to drop, that can count for a hell of a lot.”

It is a knack that has made him as popular in Ireland as Rooney is in England. “No matter what I do, no matter how many goals I score, no matter how many more appearances I make, people will always remember me for that one night against England. That’s all really nice. But the fact is I don’t want to be remembered for one night. It’s great that people still want to talk about that night, shake my hand and say thank you. But I want to be remembered as playing for Northern Ireland in the 2008 European Championship. That’s my aim and that’s what I’ve set my heart on. And I would happily give up all my goals if I was offered qualification in exchange.”

Second in Group F, Healy is justified in believing the side that Nigel Worthington has inherited from Sanchez – a team, incidentally, who were ranked 116 in the world two years ago – are in a position to qualify for the country’s first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. As the squad gathered at their hotel this week, a gaggle of autograph hunters was struggling to recognise some of the players, but this unlikely assortment, largely assembled from the Championship and League One, have 16 points from seven games going into their final five matches – beginning in Latvia on Saturday and Iceland next Wednesday.

It is a triumph of hard work and skilful management, underlined by the fact that they are two points better off than England’s total in Group E. “England underachieve while we probably overachieve,” is Healy’s candid assessment.

“We know we’re not as good as them individually but we gel as a squad. Everyone feels at home, we’re all close, we socialise together and we stick together. There are no egos and we’ve got this camaraderie that we’re all in it together. There are no superstars, nobody who’s regarded as special. If England left out Steven Gerrard or Michael Owen, everyone would have a field day. But if we left out Warren Feeney or Keith Gillespie we would just get on it. We know our limits and that we’ve probably overachieved but we know, too, that not many sides would fancy playing us.

“We have a lot of players from the lower leagues who want to be playing at a higher level. Most of us come from a background where, to succeed, you need to be strong-minded. And the press in Ireland are a lot kinder to us than the English press are with their players, so there is not as much pressure on us.”

The key, Healy says, is not to throw away all the hard work. “George Best, the best player in the world, never got the opportunity to express himself in a major championship. Ryan Giggs was the same with Wales. We’re on the brink and it might be the only chance we get for a long time.

“I know I’ve built up my hopes and I know, too, how awful it would be next summer if it all goes wrong and I end up lying on a beach somewhere thinking ‘We should have been there’. After everything we’ve done, and where we’ve come from, going from 130 in the world to the top 30, that would be a travesty. And if we get there … to the people of Northern Ireland, that would be like winning the World Cup.”