FOLLOWING THE LEADER Then Mayo team captain Keith Higgins leads the players out for the 2015 Connacht SFC semi-final against Galway. Pic: Sportsfile
That’s all Keith Higgins needed to tell the world that he was retiring from inter-county football last weekend. His tweet from his personal account at 4.53pm on Saturday evening was typical of the man; devoid of fuss or fanfare, understated, straight and to the point.
“The time has come to step away. It’s been an unbelievable journey and an absolute privilege.
It was almost like he was trying to break the news and slip away quietly and unnoticed, like he did so many times during his memorable Mayo career when drifting up the field before cutting an opposition defence to pieces at high speed.
But it was never going to happen, Keith Higgins was never going to be allowed to go quietly.
Not a man who had given 16 seasons of outstanding service to Mayo, won eight Connacht senior championship medals, four All Stars, a National League, and played in six All-Ireland senior finals (seven if you count that 2016 replay).
Not a man as highly-regarded, admired and respected.
Not a footballer as utterly brilliantly, dedicated and inspirational.
Not a competitor as driven, disciplined and relentless.
No, Keith Higgins was always going to get the send-off he deserved from team-mates, supporters and admirers.
“Thank you. There’ll be people singing your praises for decades and decades to come,” wrote the former Mayo goalkeeper, John Madden on Twitter.
“Warrior and brilliant hurler and football,” commented the RTE hurling pundit Michael Duignan from Offaly. “Congrats on a magnificent career.”
“One of the best over the last 15 years,” commented Bernard Brogan of Dublin. “Enjoy the next adventure. Respect.”
And on and on they went, hundreds and hundreds of them.
The green and red hearts at the end of Higgins’ retirement message were the perfect way to sign off.
They seemed like his way of waving to the Mayo crowd one last time.
And they brought back wonderful memories of some of his greatest days in a Mayo jersey, when we got to see what competing, and winning, meant to the man with the highest-profile in Ballyhaunis (who ironically keeps the lowest profile!).
Remember the end of the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final? When he ended up with the ball under his arm when the final whistle blew against Dublin and jumped with such joy that he looked like he was going to bounce out of Croke Park — a lá Eugene McHale in 1981!
Or the look of satisfaction and pride when he lifted the Nestor Cup as Mayo captain when Mayo beat Sligo in the 2015 Connacht Final?
Or the sheer happiness on his face as he jogged around Croke Park on a lap of honour after Mayo won the National League in 2019? And then there was the contentment (and perhaps just a little relief) when he was pictured in the middle of the pitch last November after Mayo’s first Connacht Final victory since that aforementioned 2015 success.
Those of us of a certain age can still picture the boy from Ballyhaunis lifting the Clarke Cup in Ennis after captaining Mayo to beat Cork in a thrilling All-Ireland Under-21 Final.
Within a matter of months, Higgins was operating in the man’s world of the All-Ireland senior final against Kerry and didn’t look a bit out of place.
He was to the manor born.
He was also a man of all seasons; rocking up for the FBD League on the first weekend of January and still going strong eight and nine months later when an All-Ireland semi-final or final was on the line. In between, he’d be dashing around the Mayo defence in Omagh or Tuam or Tralee during the National League, looking every inch the class act he was.He was one of the last dual players standing for a while too, swopping between hurling and football for Mayo for as long as he could. And excelling at both while making it look easy.
His historic achievement of being the only Connacht man to win Railway Cup football and hurling medals is unlikely to ever be matched now either, given that the Interpros have been consigned to the realm of forgotten things.
A bit like watching the Keith Higgins’ side-step to get himself out of trouble, just when it looked like he had been painted into a corner, he’d drop the shoulder and be gone!
He was the poster-boy for the phrase, ‘You can’t beat a bit of pace!’.
And ‘Zippy’ had pace to burn.
He was electric.
We’ll miss so much about Keith Higgins in a Mayo jersey; but we’ll have the memories of great days like his one-on-one duel with James O’Donoghue in Limerick in 2014 and that outrageous goal against the Rossies on a glorious summer’s day in Croke Park in 2017.
He walks away with his reputation as one of the all-time great Gaelic footballers of this, or any other, generation secured. He was also one of Mayo’s finest ever.
And a gentleman to deal with from the start of his career to the very end.
The pleasure was all ours.
Thanks for the memories, Keith.
Name: Keith Higgins
Debut: NFL 2005, Championship 2005
Honours: 1 NFL medal, 8 Connacht SFC medals, 4 All Stars, Young POY in 2006.
Did you know? Keith is the only man to win Railway Cup football and hurling medals with Connacht.