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Keith Higgins is a great corner-back – but our greatest ever?

Sean Rice

Sean Rice

Higgins is a great corner-back – but our greatest ever?

IS Keith Higgins the best footballer Mayo ever produced? Aidan O’Shea has invited that critical evaluation in his belief that the Ballyhaunis man has had no peers in this county.
In welcoming his appointment as team captain, O’Shea in a recent newspaper article said Higgins was a three-time All Star in a row and one of the most consistent players in the country. “He is Mayo’s best footballer of all time, in my opinion,” said the county’s midfield star.
Five years ago, when selecting a corner back on my best Mayo team since 1960, I had this to say about the Ballyhaunis man: “Higgins has already topped 50 appearances for the county, almost all of them in that competitive corner. If he continues to thrive there, to maintain his meteoric form, the Ballyhaunis man will eventually displace my preferred choice for that position over the past half century.”
I chose Dermot Flanagan on that occasion. If that were now, Higgins would be my choice for the No 4 slot, edging ahead of Flanagan, and all other hot shots down the years, the likes of Denis Kearney, Seamus Hughes, Pat Holmes, Ray Niland, Fergal Costello and Gary Ruane.
He qualifies on a number of fronts: the essence of reliability; the support he offers his team mates; his ability to read most situations, and his astute counter-attacking flair that sends defences funnelling back in panic.
In none of his performances did all of those attributes combine so powerfully and delightfully as in Limerick last year when he and Kerry’s James O’Donoghue clashed in an exquisite struggle that for those who watched was the due of the year.
That performance validated his stature as a distinguished corner back of whom supporters have come to expect habitual excellence. Ever since he donned a Mayo jersey for the first time back in 2005, he has been the touchstone of Mayo’s achievements, and it is the hope of every person in this county that his captaincy will be crowned with the glory that he and his team so richly deserve.
And yet as to Mayo’s best footballer of all time? That’s a different kettle of fish. You see, that’s to pit the great Ballyhaunis man against the great Seán Flanagan, who as captain manned the same position on Mayo’s All-Ireland winning sides.
Does the current Mayo captain stand comparison?
Times have changed. Gaelic football has evolved immeasurably beyond the standards of the fifties. A corner back was then a corner back. Today corner backs frequently appear on score-sheets, Keith Higgins among them.
But in the fifties Mayo were best of the standard that prevailed in those years. Irrefutable evidence of their superiority lies in their two back-to-back All-Irelands, an achievement further illustrated by the selection of Seán Flanagan and full-forward Tom Langan on the team of the millennium.
They were, simply, the best and until their achievements are emulated –­ until Mayo reach the summit again – there in those distinctive upper echelons they are likely to remain.
Nor can one claim absolutely that Higgins is without other peers.
Spectacular fielding was a trait peculiar to Willie Joe Padden. His aerial feats have entered the realms of folklore. The accuracy of Joe Corcoran and the ball skills of Ciaran McDonald are legendary. James Nallen, John Morley, and Joe Langan hold special niches in the memory.
Keith Higgins will eventually be gauged on his influence, his overall contributions to victories. Beyond question, in the pantheon of great corner backs there is a place reserved for him. His career so far suggests he has exceeded ordinariness.
By how much, Mayo’s All-Ireland progress will eventually unwrap.

Our mood swings with team’s fortunes

THE visit of Monaghan would not seem so daunting had Mayo not lost to Tyrone. Two opening wins was the cushion we had hoped would ease Mayo into the league, and new management into a positive lift-off.
Having taken the spoils in Killarney, customary extravagant expectations greeted the visit of Tyrone, themselves smarting from the criticism that followed their defeat by Monaghan.
Caution was called for, but we took no heed. We dwelt too much on the bright prospects that victory over Kerry presented, and too little on the proven capacity of wily Mickey Harte to bring us down to earth.
It was evident that Tyrone would come with a lot more passion than they had shown in their opening game. To a certain degree Mayo had prepared for that. But. ever alert to their vulnerabilities. Harte threw down the gauntlet with a blanket defence and Mayo, notwithstanding all their experience, were unable to penetrate it.
That, more than the loss of two points, was the unsatisfactory aspect of their defeat. Mayo had 70 minutes to vary their tactics, but remained anchored to the mistaken belief that their telegraphed passing would eventually find flaws in the Tyrone defence. You were left wondering what other unexpected chasms might await them.
Others will have been watching that result, and will have learnt. Monaghan are capable of constructing a similarly impenetrable barricade. In many aspects of their game they will prove a tougher nut to crack. And in Malachy O’Rourke they, too, have an insightful manager who, perhaps counting on Mayo to have a plan prepared to deal with a packed defence, may himself decide on a totally different system.
The team as a whole is strong and mobile. Much of their attacking strategy stems from a forceful half-back line of Dessie Mone, Kieran Duffy and Fintan Kelly, whose incursions on the counter-attack yield vital scores and cause havoc in unsuspecting defences.
On their deep running the forward line flourishes, especially free-taker Conor McManus (who scored eight of his nine points against Cork from frees), Kieran Hughes and Stephen Gallogly.
The loss of Mone through a black card against Cork was a setback and having picked up a slight injury midfielder Darren Hughes also failed to start. Both return for Sunday’s clash and that’s a bonus for O’Rourke,
Like the wind, the hopes of Mayo followers are tossed with every mood swing of our footballers. Kerry looked uninviting, but having scaled that obstacle Tyrone, on the basis of their collapse to Monaghan, was seen as a much less demanding assignment. Four points offered management the luxury to experiment with a degree of security. Now they cling precariously to two.
Mayo missed Seamus O’Shea for that game. They missed his honesty, his milling work-rate, his bottle. No one gives of himself like the Breaffy man, and it is to be hoped he will return for Sunday’s tough encounter.
Some of the old guard have not yet found their true form, but one consolation is the rediscovery of Kevin Keane as a defender of quality. His return is widely welcomed. So far most of his football has been at full-back, but when Ger Cafferkey was called from the bench against Tyrone, Keane was also impressive in the half-back line.
In a recent challenge with Clare, Mayo fielded a skeleton side with the intention it seems of helping management decide on those to let go from the panel.
Now that the competitive action is resuming, who will take the reins on Sunday to steer Mayo back on track? Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly have had a lot of thinking to do these past couple of weeks. Home wins are essential for security in the division.