From back to front, Higgins is ready for anything

Keith Higgins had his fair share of ups and downs with Mayo in the eight years he has been on the scene with the senior team, but the move up the field to the half-foward line from corner back was one that took most people by surprise before throw in for the All Ireland quarter final at the start of the month. But it was something that the Ballyhaunis man enjoyed, even if it did not last that long with Tom Cunniffe’s injury forcing him back into the full-back line before the half-time break. “As I said it was a new experience, but the fact the game went so well, it made it easier for the 20 minutes it lasted,” he laughed at last week’s press night.

Higgins who made his name as defender in football, has plenty of natural attacking instincts and operates as a midfielder or a forward for the Mayo senior hurlers also, and he enjoyed his brief bit of extra freedom in Croke Park. “I suppose especially being a corner-back you want to get out of there as quick as you can. There's a lot more freedom up there in wing-forward, you can do your own thing a bit more compared to the corner.”

Going into the Donegal game, the 28-year-old bank official was confident that Mayo would overturn the All Ireland champions as were the rest of his team-mates, even if the gap was a bit surprising, he admits. “No, look all the lads will say the same thing, there was a good confidence there, the winning margin maybe we didn't see that one coming, but everyone was confident we'd get through the game.”

Last year’s final defeat was Higgins’s second on the biggest occasion, having also been there in 2006 when Kerry put down the Mayo challenge at the final stage for the second time in two years. But last year’s final defeat saw Mayo take a lot more out of it and gave the players a template to work on over the winter to get back to where they are. “Lads will have looked at last year in general and where we had to improve and they went away and did that themselves. We worked on the basic skills and the tackling has been well documented, but the lads have worked hard themselves. Hopefully we can keep going that way.”

Learning from last year

Higgins hasn’t spent hours poring over the tape of last year’s final seeing what went wrong, he reckons that he and his team-mates knew what they had to do themselves, without being reminded of what happened. “I watched it once all right, but as I said the lads were smart enough and mature enough that they kind of know what went wrong, not just in the game but what they have to improve on from the year. They're all smart enough and I think that obviously the lads knew that and they have done that.”

As for the final itself last year the captain of the 2006 All Ireland u21 winners believes that Mayo had their chances to make the game a bit closer and just failed to do so. “We definitely put it up to them, we'd a few chances in that game and could have brought it back a bit closer to a point or two and we just didn't take them. But I think from that game it was close enough apart from the first two goals.”

There was no over celebration of the last eight win against Jimmy McGuinness’s men it was straight back to work and all eyes on Tyrone from a few days later. “We came back training the following Wednesday night. When you win like that the lads are in great form and are eager to get back out on the pitch and it makes it that bit easier. That Wednesday night session was very good, we have to build on that and keep it going.”

As for Sunday’s opponents, Higgins knows that it’s not going to be easy and that Tyrone are coming into this game with plenty of experience of winning on the big day. “They've a good balance there and any team that has a few fellas with three All Ireland medals in the back pocket aren't going to be a bad team. They are going to be a tough team to play against, they set out their strategy from the outset, they always seem to bring a man back, but look that's going to be a challenge and we're going to focus on our own performance. At the end of the day it's a simple as that, if we can play as well as we can on the day, we have to just try and focus on ourselves.”

Higgins has been part of the Mayo squad for just two years shy of a decade, and has seen plenty of changes in the way a big game is prepared for now, compared to 2005. “The whole preparation and that side has changed since I first came in. I think then it was three nights a week and now we're kinda going five or six nights, there's always something you can be doing. Even in terms of the set up, you can't go wrong with it. It has come on a huge amount, but at the end of the day, we still try to play football the same way.”

Putting in the work almost every night of the week is something that must take its toll on any person, but no-one is making him be there bar himself he says. “You just get used of it and everything else takes a back seat, you get used of it. Nobody's forcing you to do it, you just do it because you enjoy it and it's not a bad place to be right now either.”

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