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A defensive star for 16 seasons, was Higgins the best Mayo produced in modern era?

The Mayo defensive great retired yesterday.

Keith Higgins in action for Mayo against Dublin in 2018.
Keith Higgins in action for Mayo against Dublin in 2018.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE LAST ACT for Keith Higgins in a Mayo jersey saw him play a peripheral role.

He watched on as All-Ireland dejection visited Mayo once more in a decider, an unused substitute for the eerie December occasion that rounded off the 2020 championship. It would prove his final involvement in the Mayo football ranks.

Five weeks on, the 35-year-old signed off yesterday evening on that chapter in his life with a simple 18-word tweet. 

After 16 senior campaigns and 165 competitive appearances, 75 of those in championship, Higgins was finished.

He did his county some service. Sights of him in action had become limited last season, a Connacht final second-half introduction the only exception, but acting as a bystander for a high-pressure game against Dublin seemed an ill-fitting way for him to bow out.

For so long Higgins had been immersed in those battles with Dublin, a key protagonist when they suffered disappointment and part of a select group, along with David Clarke and Alan Dillon, who did start in two championship wins over their capital rivals.

In both of those successes, Higgins was central to the pulsating endings. In 2006 the point Ciaran McDonald swept over into Hill 16 is etched into minds but before the kick it was a lung-bursting run upfield from Higgins to gather from Ger Brady before offloading to Kevin O’Neill that proved crucial.

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

In 2012 as Mayo withstood a furious Dublin rally that chipped away at their advantage, they were clinging to a three-point advantage when Stephen Cluxton dropped a ’45 into a packed goalmouth. When the ball broke towards the net, it was Higgins who caught it and skipped clear of danger, the last player in possession when Joe McQuillan blew his full-time whistle.

keith-higgins-claims-a-ball-in-the-square-late-in-the-game Keith Higgins claims possession late on against Dublin in 2012. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His celebrations after that semi-final were not to be replicated on final day. Higgins was part of a Mayo setup for an All-Ireland final on seven occasions but six defeats and a draw was his lot. Up until December’s game he started them all, beginning as the young rookie tasked with quietening Colm Cooper in 2006, facing down Donegal six years later before the series of meetings with Dublin.

The only time he was substituted in a final was in the 74th minute of the 2017 epic. While his influence was diluted by the 2020 edition in not seeing gametime, it was an achievement to be still involved with Clarke the only compatriot also knocking around from that appearance 14 years previous.

That initial journey to the All-Ireland final in 2006 hinted at a future rich in promise. The same season saw Higgins crowned Young Footballer of the Year while he captained Mayo to U21 glory in Ennis against Cork, a pairing that would produce batches of senior players for their respective counties over the next decade.

keith-higgins-lifts-the-cup Keith Higgins captained Mayo to All-Ireland U21 glory in 2006. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

And yet it was five years before Mayo would even reach the last four stage again, Higgins forced to grind his way back to the top and overcome personal setbacks like the red card he was shown on the night of John O’Mahony’s last stand as manager in June 2010 when Mayo were dumped out of the qualifiers by Longford.

The longevity of his career and his individual resilience are both impressive facets given how an early chunk of it panned out while his quality as a footballer also made him stand out.

Was there a better defender in the country in the 2012-17 time frame? That was when he hoovered up four All-Star awards, a number matched in that spell by team-mates Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle, along with opponents during his career in Karl Lacey and Jack McCaffrey. No defender outside of Kerry has won more All-Stars and while it is a selection scheme that it is subjective, it does point to the level that Higgins was operating at during the last decade.

Rampaging half-backs caught the eye, Higgins was capable of slotting in there and unleashing his blistering pace to move upfield, but was just as comfortable in being detailed closer to goal to watch the most dangerous forwards in the country.

He was involved in some fascinating duels, the best of which was the two-game saga against James O’Donoghue in August 2014. That was during the Kerry man’s stellar Footballer of the Year season and while he hit the scoring mark then against Mayo, Higgins was still superb, particularly the few memorable block downs to deny O’Donoghue in the replay in Limerick.

james-odonoghue-has-his-attempt-blocked-by-keith-higgins James O'Donoghue has an attempt blocked down by Keith Higgins in 2014. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There were outings further up the pitch. He started the 2013 final at centre-forward before retreating to a defensive post before the end. Amongst all the Mayo final regrets, maybe that stands out the most. With Dublin having used all their subs, Eoghan O’Gara had to hobble around for the last quarter after damaging his hamstring. Higgins remained at close quarters and while it was difficult to appraise that scenario in a frantic finale, hindsight does make you wonder of how Mayo would have fared if he was released to join their attack before the end that day?

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Latter years saw a stronger focus on rearguard duties but there were flashes of his fleet-footed and determined bursts that could unhinge defences in the goals he scored against Roscommon in the 2017 quarter-final replay and against Tyrone in the 2019 league.

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

His retirement is the sixth that Mayo have witnessed this month. It is a notable exodus and along with the departures in recent times of Alan Dillon and Andy Moran, it means so many of Mayo’s stalwarts that fought so hard for so long have departed.

There is a case to be made that Higgins was the best that Mayo produced in the modern era. He didn’t secure the Footballer of the Year accolade that others did while of the bunch that still remain there is time for Keegan, Boyle, Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor to embellish their CVs. 

But the athleticism, defensive instincts, versatility, hard-running and sheer persistence of Higgins over the years puts him in the upper echelons when these Mayo players are assessed.

And there is also the dual aspect to his story.

Hurling always consumed his interest, a constant presence for his club Ballyhaunis and different seasons with the Mayo team. He was centre-back for a Nicky Rackard Cup final success in 2016 in Croke Park, nine years after being the only Mayo player in a Connacht side of Galway hurlers under the tutelage of Ger Loughnane that contested an interprovincial decider at the stadium.

It was interesting to note yesterday in the Mayo GAA announcement that Higgins was retiring from inter-county football.

Perhaps there is another hurling chapter left to write in the story of a Mayo playing great.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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