Eugene McGee: Mick Higgins - A great Gael in every sense
I never knew Christy Ring, Mick Mackey or Paddy Kennedy and I had a mere acquaintance with Sean Purcell and Mick O'Connell. But I actually knew Mick Higgins quite well over the past 30 years or more, and considered myself blessed to have known him. In the pantheon of great Gaelic footballers he would be considered at least in the 25 best players of all time.
He was outstanding with Cavan, winning three All-Irelands; he was the first former player to train his own county to provincial titles four times; and he trained Longford (1968) and Donegal (1972) to their first provincial successes. He was also a leading inter-county referee.
But medals, facts or figures are not why the name Mick Higgins of Cavan reverberated with sadness through the GAA world last week when his death, at 87, was announced.
This was not a mere GAA star, this was a sporting icon of his time to match contemporaries such as Ring and Mackey, Jackie Kyle in rugby and Jackie Carey in soccer -- national figures who transcended the bounds of their own sport and captured the hearts of all Irish sports people.
It is almost impossible to appreciate nowadays the sporting environment into which Mick Higgins was thrust shortly after his parents decided to return from America when Mick was 10 years old.
And what a fortuitous time the Higgins family arrived back to in Breffni land. In their first year back, 1933, Cavan caused a sensation by beating a super Kerry team in the All-Ireland semi-final by 1-5 to 0-5, thereby preventing Kerry from achieving their first of only two attempts at winning five All-Irelands in a row.
Cavan went on to win their first All-Ireland title, beating Galway in the final, and won again, beating Kildare, in 1935. This set the hearts of children and young men on fire with ambition for further glory.
And how Cavan responded! In the space of 20 years, 1933-1952, Cavan played in a staggering 12 All-Ireland finals, including three replays, and won the title five times. In addition, they were beaten in five other semi-finals to match a 20-year span in GAA history that has never been matched by any county other than Kerry or Dublin.
Mick Higgins played in six of those finals, starting at the age of 20 in 1943 - including a return to his native city for the 1947 final in the Polo Grounds, New York - and finishing by collecting the Sam Maguire Cup after the defeat of Meath in a replay in 1952 when he scored 0-7 of Cavan's total of 0-9.
It is in this era of incredible success Mick Higgins' sporting talent was honed and he emerged from it as possibly the biggest star of the many great players who formed those teams. He invariably played at centre half-forward, or as Cavan people always referred to that position 'centre three-quarters', at a time when that No 11 position was rigidly applied to that specific area.
Higgins was regarded then and since as being well ahead of his time in his peripheral vision, his ability to distribute passes to other forwards to telling effect, and in latter years, in perfecting the art of free-taking.
There have been other players technically as good as Mick Higgins but he had a special charisma attached to him which led to him becoming arguably the most critical component in the Cavan team for 10 glorious years.
There were many iconic figures in Cavan in those times, whose names still are remembered, such as the great leader John Joe O'Reilly, the first man to collect the Sam Maguire twice in succession; Phil 'The Gunner' Brady, who made lads like Francie Bellew look like friendly kittens; Peter Donoghue, one of the greatest of all free-takers and Tony Tighe, Higgins' alter ego, with whom he had a telepathic understanding in attacking play.
Higgins and Tighe had the same sort of understanding that Sean Purcell and Frankie Stockwell had a decade or more later with Galway.
It was inevitable that Mick's football brain would not lie dormant following his rather sudden retirement in 1953, and he went on to train Cavan to four Ulster titles.
He was inveigled to train Longford and the county reached their first Leinster final in '65, beat the great Galway team in the League final in '66 and won their one and only Leinster title in '68 beating Dublin, Offaly and Meath -- then All-Ireland champions -- along the way. No wonder Mick Higgins is revered in Longford!
In 1972, when Donegal were struggling to make a breakthrough, Mick came to their aid and got them to their first Ulster title, along with Brian McEniff. But there was hardly a county in Ulster where he did not provide expertise and instil confidence, at that time often lacking in Ulster, and he never looked for a penny in return.
Mick was also an outstanding referee, at times when games were genuinely tough, as opposed to the 'shapers' who think so at present. There was a legendary 'Battle of Ballinascreen' in the late 1950s when Derry played Down in the Ulster semi-final, a game that really lived up to the label.
Even though Mick was training Cavan, who were awaiting the winners in the final, such was their respect for him that both counties were happy to have him.
In one particular bust-up a famous Down forward, who was not an innocent bystander, was seen lying on the ground as if injured. Mick went over to him and said: "It's okay, you can get up now, I'm not sending you off". Class!
The most modest superstar I ever met, Mick granted himself only one small boast which was that he never hit a cowardly blow and never got sent off. That distinction defined his whole life and ensured that he was the most loved players of them all among Cavan people. One wonders how many of the 'greats' of the present time will be able to carry that badge of honour to their grave as Mick Higgins did.