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Fri, Feb
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A man for all seasons

Sport

ON THE FRONT FOOT Mayo’s Keith Higgins takes on Dublin’s Paddy Andrews during the 2015 All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at Croke Park.  Pic: Sportsfile

Talking Tactics
Billy Joe Padden

THERE’S nothing like five Mayo footballers retiring in quick succession to remind you that time and tide wait for no man, especially when you played with all of them back in the day.
I remember when Keith Higgins arrived in the Mayo dressing-room for the first time back in early 2005, a few months after we’d lost an All-Ireland Final to Kerry.
Keith only turned 20 that spring but he hit his stride immediately and burst on to the inter-county scene. He was raw and young, with a carefree attitude to how he played the game, and he did a lot of things off the cuff in those days.
But it was his dynamic pace that made him stand out immediately, and not just his pace to cover ground. He reacted quickly, his hands were quick in the tackle, he did everything at speed.
He took risks too, he wasn’t always out in front, and he wasn’t always totally focussed on where his man was because he knew he had that great recovery pace to get back. But, again, usually when there was a situation when he was out of position, or taking a chance, he was so quick to mentally ‘switch back on’ — married to the great running pace that he had — that it allowed him to get back into good defensive positions quickly.
As for the forwards who were marking him, I think they feared him most for his pace. They knew it was such a weapon. He was second-to-none when it came to winning a ball out in front in the full-back line, playing a one-two, and driving forward to go the full length of the field. That ability scared the life out of corner-forwards up and down the country.
He developed into a real leader in this Mayo group in the last number of years.
I’m sure a lot of the younger players looked up to him greatly because Keith had the personality and the mindset to be able to deal with the intensity of being an inter-county footballer. He knew what it takes to perform on the big day but, at the same time, didn’t get too fazed by too much that happened around the games or during them.
Keith will be 36 next month which reminds me just how impressive his longevity has been.
He played a central role in one of the biggest wins I had as a Mayo footballer, when we beat Dublin in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. Fast forward 15 years and you have many people, myself included, feeling that he should have played some football in the 2020 All-Ireland Final last month.
To be able to span that period, practically playing every minute of every big match that Mayo have played in the interim, is a huge task, especially playing most of it at corner-back.
I don’t think there’s any other footballer in the country that’s been able to play that position for that long at such a high level.
It’s hard to explain the sort of mental and physical strains that are put on a player operating in the last line of the defence at inter-county level; so to win four All Stars as a corner-back is a credit to Keith as a competitor, an athlete and to his mental strength to be able to consistently deal with that challenge.
Keith, his family, and everyone in Ballyhaunis can be really proud of his achievements as a Mayo footballer. I’ve always got the impression that Keith is someone who’s very connected to his family and his hometown.
He’s done so much for Ballyhaunis as a footballer and a hurler, and you can see that representing them means a lot to him. And it’s easy to see why they’re so very proud of him and what he achieved.
When we talk about the best footballers to ever have played for Mayo, I think Keith Higgins is going to be in most conversations for years to come. On a personal level, it was a pleasure and an honour to play with him, considering the ability he had and just good he was.

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