BACK in 1996, on the day Mayo beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, a group of 10 year-olds from Ballyhaunis watched the drama unfold at Croke Park from the (relative) comfort of the Nally Stand.
They were there to show their support for David Nestor, the Ballyhaunis ‘boy wonder’ who had a penchant for scoring spectacular goals and even more spectacular celebrations.
Among the gang of coke-drinking, sweet-eating, stars of the future was Keith Higgins.
Fast forward 15 years, and Higgins has become part of the furniture in the Mayo defence. Under four different managers, for the last seven seasons, he has been asked to fill the role of man-marker and full-back line sweeper. And between his pace, agility and reading of the game, he has very rarely let the side down.
It was no surprise then that the 26 years-old from Ballyhaunis was one of only three players hand-picked by James Horan to face the media last week ahead of Mayo’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. After all, Higgins is as solid and dependable in front of a dictaphone as he is in the white-heat of championship.
With his back to the wall in a McHale Park meeting room, hemmed in on all sides by curious journalists, Higgins dealt comfortably with the scatter-gunned questions. He even managed a wry smile when the topic of Kerry, the 2006 Final, and his role in Colm Cooper’s goal came up.
“To be honest I remember very little about the game,” he mused. “It’s amazing how a big occasion like that can pass you by. I remember slipping for The Gooch’s goal. . but very little else. .”
“You just want the ground to open up and swallow you,” he added wistfully when asked how it felt to see Cooper sprinting through on his way to scoring.
With the topic of Kerry up for discussion, The Mayo News asks what’s different about playing the most-successful team in the country in the latter stages of the championship.
“I suppose there’s that kind of aura about Kerry teams,“ offered Higgins. “They’re legendary at this stage.
“It’s just their six forwards. They’re probably six of the best in the country. They can play long ball, short ball, and vary it so much that you don’t know what they’re going to do.
“They’re great footballers. The likes of Declan O’Sullivan, how do you mark that? He’s strong, powerful, and can kick off either foot. The Gooch is the same. If you give him half a yard, he’ll take a mile.”
‘Would you study DVDs of him?’ asks a man from a Sunday paper. “You don’t need any DVDs with The Gooch,” chuckles Higgins. “He hardly ever does the same thing twice.”
Next Sunday’s meeting will the first time the counties have crossed paths in the championship since that All-Ireland Final of five years ago. So, despite the manner of recent Mayo defeats against Kerry at Croke Park, Keith Higgins is adamant that the slate is clean.
“A lot of the lads didn’t play in the 2004 or 2006 finals so they won’t have any fear of Kerry,” he explained. “They’re looking forward to playing probably the best team in the country. It’s where you want to be. You just have to get those other games out of your head.
“We’re just trying to keep things calm, keep everybody’s feet on the ground, and try and catch them on the hop.”