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Dual star Higgins a class apart

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EYES ON THE PRIZE Keith Higgins is pictured in action for Ballyhaunis during the recent Mayo Senior Hurling Championship Final against Tooreen. Pic: Ciara Buckley

A FEW weeks have rolled by since the Ballyhaunis hurlers brought the TJ Tyrell Cup back the road from Tooreen to spend its first winter in the East Mayo town since 2016.
The story of how the day was won by Ballyhaunis was beautifully told, as always, by our own Michael Commins on these pages, and his accompanying interview with Ballyhaunis manager, Pierce Higgins, underlined just what the win meant to him and his comrades.
Time pressure and space constraints over the last few weeks prevented us from expanding a little more on another angle of that evening at Adrian Freeman Memorial Park.
But it would be remiss of us not to return to the topic before our attention turns elsewhere.
Anybody lucky enough to have seen Keith Higgins play hurling in the flesh will know how good he is when at the peak of his powers. When he’s had time to work on his skills, his striking, his timing and his touch. He is a wizard with the small ball most days he goes out.
And his performance in the recent County Hurling Final was a reminder of just how special a talent he is; a dual player without equal in Mayo for as long as anyone can remember.
It didn’t matter that the wind howled and swirled all evening, or that the rain spat down for most of a match that crackled with intensity from start to finish. Or that Tooreen’s backs tried to give as good as they got from the opposition number 11 all through.
The 35 year-old Ballyhaunis playmaker just carried on regardless; spraying passes, splitting the Tooreen defence with piercing runs, bringing others into the game and nailing points to beat the band.
Keith finished with nine points (seven from frees) but that didn’t tell half the story of his influence. He took the game to Tooreen every chance he got and backed from nothing.
A few moments, in particular, stand out.
One was in the first half when he won a ball in front of Tooreen’s David Kenny, another outstanding dual player and a fine hurler in his own right.
But there was nothing he could do once Higgins changed direction quickly, throwing Kenny off the scent with a subtle swivel of his hips, before turning on to his left hand side and drilling the ball over the bar from some 45 metres out on the left wing.
It was a score of rare and natural beauty.
Later in the evening, when the game hung in the balance, Higgins won a ball on the right wing, threw it on to his hurley, and drove hard at the Tooreen goal, with a few defenders in hot pursuit. He held them off for as long as he could, before they closed in and fouled him.
Moments later he popped over the resulting free. Job done.
When the final whistle sounded, Higgins celebrated like he’d just won his first county final all over again. You’d never have guessed it was his 13th time to win this competition with Ballyhaunis!
But this one was special.
Late that night we got a text from a man who knows his Mayo hurling better than most.
“Is Keith the best we’ve ever seen?” he asked rhetorically, knowing the answer already!
The same man had hinted before the game that Higgins was ready to deliver a big display.
How right he was.
We all know how good of a Gaelic footballer Keith Higgins has been over the years and continues to be for both club and county; his four All Stars and collection of medals and trophies speak for themselves. He is one of Mayo’s all-time greats and has never let the side down from the Knock Road in Ballyhaunis to Croke Park.
But watching him hurl so brilliantly with his club, his friends, his life-long team-mates, and alongside his brother, Pierce, a few weeks ago was something truly magical and special.
And it was a reminder that we may never see his likes again.
When the time does come for Keith Higgins to walk away from it all, like Ciaran McDonald, we’ll say we were lucky to see him do his thing.
And we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Mike Finnerty

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