Our New Year glut of retirements continued today with the sad though not wholly unexpected announcement by Keith Higgins that his inter-county days are at an end. The official announcement of Keith’s retirement is here.
Keith Higgins was, by any measure, one of the greatest players ever to don the Green and Red jersey. A four-time All-Star as well as Young Footballer of the Year in 2006 – when he captained the county to U21 All-Ireland success – Keith performed at a consistently high standard for us at Senior level for fifteen years, during which time he made 90 National League appearances and 75 in the Championship.
It was back in February 2005, under the lights at Parnell Park up the road from here in Donnycarney on Dublin’s Northside, when Keith made his debut at inter-county level with the Senior team. I was at that League game, as I recall, on a cold night when we lost out by a single point.
Little did I realise, when Keith came on for David Heaney midway through the second half in that game, that this was the first appearance of a player who would go one to become one of the best we’ve ever had.
By that summer he’d made his Championship debut as well, lining out at corner-back in the semi-final against Roscommon at Hyde Park that June. From then on, he was pretty much an ever-present on the team.
One of my favourite Keith Higgins memories comes from early in his Senior career. That was on the memorable day when we shocked Dublin in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, a match in which the young Ballyhaunis clubman was given the task of picking up Dublin’s star forward Alan Brogan.
It was Brogan who kept taking the fight to us that day and Keith had a torrid seventy minutes on him. But one cameo late on in that game marked Keith out as a special talent.
Despite the battle he was having keeping tabs on Brogan, Keith threw caution to the wind and charged forward – his trademark lightning pace already evident – and took possession at speed from Ger Brady, making ground rapidly before offloading to Kevin O’Neill who fed Ciaran McDonald for the winning score. Here, watch it yourself:
Six years later, it was Keith who emerged from a thicket of players with the ball under his arm having claimed it on the line as Dublin sought despairingly for the goal they needed to bring the match to a replay. That certainly was a moment to savour too.
Keith’s battle for the ages with James O’Donoghue at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick was another high point. From a Mayo standpoint, we tend to focus on all the negative things that befell us that evening but the sight of two top-class players at the height of their powers going at each other hammer and tongs was a privilege to witness.
I wasn’t there in 2017 for his goal against Roscommon in the replayed All-Ireland quarter-final but did get to see the game from afar on GAA GO. I’ll never forget the way he suddenly took off, putting on the after-burners and bursting through the Roscommon backline before ramming the ball to the net.
But Keith had that kind of talent. He’d often be stationary when he’d take possession but he had that hare-like ability to bolt forward at blinding speed, leaving opponents flailing in his wake. It wasn’t for nothing that he earned the sobriquet ‘Zippy’.
Keith was an All-Star three years in a row – in 2012, 2103 and again in 2014 – and won his final award in 2017. He holds eight Connacht SFC medals and a National League medal as well as All-Ireland honours at U21 level.
He’s also, according to the Mayo News, the only Connacht player to win Interprovincial medals in both hurling and football. He’s the proud holder of a Rackard Cup medal from 2017 and seeing as today’s announcement only relates to football there must be at least some chance that he’ll continue to line out for the hurlers.
Whatever Keith decides to do in that regard, his place in the ranks of all-time Mayo football greats is, of course, already assured. On so many big days for the county, Keith stood tall for us and, as supporters, we’re forever in his debt for that. Thanks for everything Keith and the best of luck to you and your family in future.