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Dublin defeat left Higgins with doubts but Mayo stalwart ready for 2017 challenge

Keith Higgins hopes Mayo’s U21 success can help to end the county’s 66-year wait for Sam Maguire.

Keith Higgins Keith Higgins sporting Mayo's new home shirt. Source: INPHO/James Crombie

KEITH HIGGINS HAS heard it many times before.

With plenty of experience of what it’s like to be on the losing side in an All-Ireland senior football final, it’s a question that’s often posed of him at this time of year.

“How hard will it be to come back from this?”

On the first day of October last, Higgins played his 125th game for Mayo since his debut in 2005. It ended in a one-point victory for Dublin in a replay, and a fourth taste of defeat on All-Ireland final day for Higgins.

“I keep saying to people that it’s actually easier to come back after getting so close because you know you’re not too far away,” Higgins explains.

“It would be a lot worse if we were losing qualifiers or quarter-finals and not getting that close. But when you do get so close, you realise that there’s a big opportunity there if you can get a few little things right.”

Brian Fenton and Keith Higgins Higgins is tackled by Dublin's Brian Fenton during the All-Ireland final replay. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Higgins knows what it’s like to be on both sides of that equation. Mayo have been one of the last four teams remaining in the championship — including three final appearances — in each of the last six seasons, but Higgins has known brief campaigns too.

The three-time All-Star was sent off as Mayo were eliminated in the first round of the qualifiers by Longford in 2010. Sligo had ended their bid for success in Connacht three weeks earlier.

That said, while Higgins is grateful to know what it’s like to grace Croke Park beyond August, it doesn’t make the grieving process any less painful. After this year’s failure, his football and hurling commitments with Ballyhaunis helped to temporarily numb the pain.

“It never gets any easier anyway. Obviously there was huge disappointment after this year’s final, especially after going to a replay,” Higgins explains.

“But we were straight back into club championship the following weekend, and we had a game nearly every weekend for a good while after that, so in a funny kid of way we probably haven’t gone through the full grieving process yet.

“Being so busy with the club was a good distraction from it so it probably did make it a small bit easier. I haven’t even looked back on the game yet. I might get a chance to do that over Christmas or the new year and obviously it’s going to bring back a lot of memories.”

Keith Higgins Higgins was Young Footballer of the Year in 2006. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

At 31, Higgins still has plenty to offer Mayo so a retirement announcement after the defeat to Dublin would have come as a surprise. Nevertheless, he has already given 11 seasons to his county’s senior football team. Simultaneously, Higgins is also a key player for the Mayo hurlers so he played a total of 13 inter-county championship games in the summer of 2016.

There was subsequently a decision to be made about his future, but Higgins wouldn’t have been at peace had he walked away.

“There was such disappointment after the All-Ireland that you probably question things for a while,” he admits. “But with the opportunity we have playing for Mayo, it’s always going to drive you back. Coming so close last year, you realise that you’re not very far away. You kind of have to go back just in case something does happen.”

Higgins doesn’t want to entertain thoughts of how it might feel to retire before Mayo end the 66-year wait to get their hands on Sam Maguire. However, avoiding that very prospect is what drives him at this stage of his career.

“When you get to this stage you kind of nearly have to make the most of what’s left,” Higgins says. “You’re just hoping to get the most out of the next year that’s ahead of you. You don’t want to be putting all your eggs in one basket and saying, ‘This is it, now or never’, but you just take it year after year and hope to make the most out of it.”

This year marked exactly a decade since Higgins captained Mayo to their fourth All-Ireland U21 football title. They won their fifth back in April, and Higgins hopes that some of the stars of that win over Cork can graduate and finally transform Mayo from runners-up into champions.

Daniel Goulding and Keith Higgins Cork's Daniel Goulding under pressure from Mayo's Keith Higgins in the 2006 All-Ireland U21 football final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Higgins: “That’s always what you wish for when you have success with underage teams. You want to be maybe getting three or four players coming through to add something to it.

“When you come so close and you want to tweak a few things to get them right, hopefully it can bring you a step further next year. Hopefully some of those lads can come on, push for places and add something next year that maybe we were missing before.

“That could make the world of difference for us.”

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Paul Dollery

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