Half a decade ago, Mayo were bounced out of the Connacht championship by Sligo in the shadow of Benbulbin, it was one of those bad days for Mayo football where nothing went right.
But five years on Mayo are on the hunt for a fifth Connacht title in a row and Keith Higgins is the man who will be hoping to lift the Nestor Cup on Sunday evening. Looking back on that day, which was the last time Mayo lost in the Connacht Championship, Higgins said: "I don't remember a huge amount, I remember at one stage in the second half we were struggling for anything to go right for us. We got a good start that day, but once Sligo got control of us, we couldn't do anything right. I just remember us all trying to bomb on to get a goal or a point and it just didn't go right. But that's the thing with Sligo, they can pull out a big performance now and again there, hopefully they won't do the same the next day."
Higgins is one of the most experienced and decorated members of the Mayo panel, when asked was there anything different this year to previous years, as Mayo are now under the management of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, replied: "It's hard to put your finger on it just yet having played only just one championship game, it's probably hard. I don't think we played as well as we can in the last game, maybe we were disrupted a small bit, and again in first championship game [there will] always be mistakes in it, it's just about getting over the hurdle and into the Connacht final. How we've changed, we want to try and be a bit more smarter, if it's to change the tempo up or down and be smarter. It's not something maybe that you can train, but those are the kind of things and improvements we're trying to make."
Sligo have shown their worth
While there was plenty of talk of a potential showdown between Mayo and Roscommon in the Connacht final earlier this year, the Yeats County men turned that on its head with a stunning performance in their semi-final upset win, but that did not surprise Higgins at all he said. "I was actually in Roscommon the week before and I was saying to them I wouldn't be surprised if Sligo won, it had that type of feel, I watched the first half of it. There was no talk of Sligo and up there they are tough to play against and they normally get a good performance every few years up there."
Higgins was a student in IT Sligo where he won a Sigerson Cup in 2005, but he does not know too many of the current Sligo inter-county side that well. "The current team I won't know that well to be honest, I'd have played against Adrian Marren a few times down through the years, even in underage. A lot of the younger lads I probably wouldn't know, I was actually just going down through them, a few boys like David Kelly I'd know a bit."
Mayo are on a historic drive towards a first five in a row in Connacht in modern times, a serious achievement it they can accomplish it, but that is not something that Higgins has paid much heed to in the build up he explained. "You'd hear a small bit of talk about it, it might have something to do with the public as well that a Connacht title might not be as big, maybe the expectation is a bit more at this stage, even though it's five in a row. There will be a bit of talk about it, but it's not something we're going to use as motivation, it would be a nice thing and has a nice ring to it."
Big games are where you want to be
Playing in big games is something that Higgins has got used to over his career. When asked if it made things calmer in the build up to them now that he has had all that experience he said: "I think it does, these are the games you want to look forward to, the weeks leading up to the game when you come into training. There's a bit of a buzz about the place and the weather's a bit better. The day of the game you will always be nervous no matter how long you've been there. The morning of the game, trying to kill those few hours can be torturous, but the build up to it, lads are a bit calmer, we know about it, lads have been there the last few years, I think we've got used to the routine of it."
There is no fear of complacency in the Mayo camp ahead of the game despite what those outside the tent might think, the captain said. "After Sligo turned over Roscommon, people will have to be smart enough to look at it themselves. Look at the inside foward line they have, they are going to cause trouble to any full back line." Looking back at the last times the teams met in the championship Higgins acknowledged it was a serious battle. " For a lot of that game, especially in the second half I think we were down a few points, I think Colm [Boyle] got a point to level it or something like that. Most of the panel were there that day."
As for having to head back to Hyde Park again, it is not his first choice, but it is something that doesn't bother Higgins either. "It's not ideal, I would have preferred if it was here, but that's asking a bit too much I suppose. We've played there a lot over the last few years, we know the pitch whether good or bad, or whatever shape it's in, we've no control over that, we can just go out there and do the job." He also added: "In the Hyde, it's kind of a funny place, it kind ofplays like a tight pitch, but I don't think that'll be an issue. For the majority of games we'd be confident if we played to our potential that we'd win."
Competition for places is healthy
The Mayo back six for the Galway game showed a few changes from what has been one of the most solid and dependable units in the inter-county game. For Sunday's clash both Ger Cafferekey and Donal Vaughan have been restored to the starting line-up, but that just shows the strength of the panel he said. "The theory is no matter who is playing it should be the same routine, but when you've different personnel there it does take a bit of getting used to. I suppose the half-back line was the most settled line we had over the last few years, and there were big changes there, it's a good thing in way. When Donnie came on the last day one of the first things he did was run up the pitch and laid the ball off for a point, lads won't be happy being left off, but if you can come in and make an impact. That's the way it has to be, but it's going to be difficult on lads at times, but when you've a panel of 34 players you can't make everyone happy. Competition for places, when you look at the Kilkenny hurlers, some of their training session matches are legendary at this stage, I don't know if it's all true, but that's the talk from there, if we can get that kind of competition for places here, it has to drive lads on."
Looking back on the Galway game there was plenty for Mayo to take out of it, good and bad, and learning to be got from it he said. "We'd hope so, the fact we had five weeks gave us a lot of time to see what we did well and what we didn't. Teams are looking to improve on what they did well the whole time, you have to if you want to go further, five weeks could be a benefit in terms of that and it helped clear up a few niggles." He also added: "We were expecting a more phyiscal team than recent years, I don't know if they were trying to bully us or maybe just stand up and disrupt the way we play, there weren't many free flowing passages of football in the game, they were maybe trying to disrupt how we play really. After two years ago you wouldn't expect anything else."