Keith Higgins - 'There's no point Mayo worrying about curses or ghosts'
New skipper warns Mayo must ‘do something different’ to end 64-year wait, writes David Kelly
Published 17/07/2015 | 02:30
There is an assumption that when Keith Higgins assumed the role of Mayo captain this year, he deigned to allow a generation of shackled spectres to clatter around his mind.
Still another that, when he leaves the Bank of Ireland in Castlebar to go for lunch, the locals discreetly cross the street to avoid eye contact or, if forced to queue beside him in Café Rua, begin to jabber with inordinate cheeriness about the weather.
It's not that bad. Yet.
This week, a fifth successive Connacht title might beckon but it is for all the world another step closer to a tilt at a sporting nirvana that is becoming more elusive with every passing year.
This year, Mayo dare to be different. They have stitched these words into the very garments they wear, as if attempting to cajole the dog-eared scripts of perennial disappointments to lurch in a different direction.
An outsider can sense a depreciating appetite amongst the locals in investing too much of their hearts in the Mayo cause.
"I'm 80 now," the late, great Eamonn Mongey - a member of THAT 1951 All-Ireland winning team (and the one before it) - told a congregation in this town a few years back.
"And it is my determination to see Mayo win Sam that has helped me to overcome a triple by-pass operation, six heart attacks and a hip replacement!"
As they were received by the audience, the words tilted at levity but teetered towards gravity.
"They're probably afraid at this stage of becoming too expectant after suffering so many big defeats over the last few years," Higgins notes, detecting subtle changes in local sentiment.
"Nobody avoids you. But yeah, when a fella comes up to you, the handshake is sort of firm but there wouldn't be too many words. They'd wish you the best of luck but there'd be no more talk to it. They try not to add the ifs and buts.
"They expect to do well but at the same time they don't want to get too far ahead of themselves.
"For us, it's another year and we're going at it again. There's no point in us worrying about curses or ghosts or anything like that.
"For the last three or four years, when Mayo have been doing fairly well, there seems to be an expectation bubbling beneath the surface but it's not really bubbling over.
"Whereas in other years, when we had a good year, people would be expecting an All-Ireland. At this stage now, there's still expectancy but it's not been talked about as much. Under-stated is probably the world for it.
"Listen, there's expectancy there from the players and the public. It's just not something we carry on our chests. It's probably hoping more than anything else. . ."
Daring to be different is a neat catchphrase, a marketer's wheeze, but in order for Mayo to be different, they need to be better. Just one point better than everyone they meet. Just one!
James Horan removed the "bulls**t" but still Mayo felt short; now both Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly are tasked with scaling hitherto impossible peaks. Their past - underage success, significantly an U-21 All-Ireland, captained by Higgins, in 2006 - is as irrelevant as perceived curses; omens cannot be an ally in the future.
There are encouraging signs though, as Higgins avers, in Mayo's willingness to deploy the target-man so crucial to their contemporary successful rivals, with Aidan O'Shea imitating the O'Gara/Donaghy/Murphy role.
Also, in a belated attempt to absorb the painful lessons that Kerry and Dublin were forced to acknowledge upon their route to success, they have resolved to be tighter in defence, too.
The style that so excited the public, like the Waterford hurlers of a decade ago, ultimately thieved from them any chance of substance.
"We have to do something different because what we've done in previous years hasn't been good enough. It's as simple as that. The best team wins at the end of the year and that hasn't been us," acknowledges Higgins.
"Something has to change. Having said that, Pat and Noel haven't changed too much. They're fine-tuning the way we're approaching things, maybe a bit more structure at the back.
"In other years, we played free-flowing football, which may have suited us but let us down at the other end. So the set-up at the back is probably the more important thing.
"You see Dublin learning from the Donegal game last year. They've re-structured their model at the back and we're trying to do something similar. We've only had the Galway game really so it might take time.
"Our attack was no secret in the Galway game but you'd have to have more than just kicking it into Aidan O'Shea. We had that plan against Galway and it worked well that day.
"But you can't be one-dimensional. Again, not comparing, but Donegal do the same thing with Michael Murphy. It's negotiating your way through a game, adapting to situations."
Reining in emotion doesn't necessarily render them soulless beings, though. In some places, there is a sense of almost ascetic rigour about the exercise, a Spartan devotion to monkish behaviour. Not, mercifully, in Mayo.
"In fairness, we've never had anything like drink bans. We've a group of players who would be fairly smart in terms of their attitude to it anyway.
"If we're lucky enough to win the Connacht final, some of us might go out for a bit, other lads will go home. Nobody is forced to so anything or not to do anything.
"I think it's important when you win that you can get a chance to celebrate that success. The lads work hard enough for nine months of the year and you might only get four or five nights out.
"There's no harm for the lads to let the hair down and have a bit of craic. It won't affect them too much, the lads are smart enough to know what they can and cannot do."
For all their toils and tribulations, Mayo can still approach the mirror with a smile.
"If you walked into our dressing-room an hour before training, you'd hear Barry or Andy Moran and Mickey Conroy and them boys telling stories and laughing their heads off.
"The craic is already there. Then you've an hour on the field doing the hard work. Lads wouldn't play if they didn't enjoy it. There's a perception that it's like a military life. It is a lot of fun.
"That's why the nights out are important as well, so the stories gather up. There has to be a fun element to it or else why would you bother?"
While the element of fun can dissipate in the despair of defeat, other invasions are often repugnant to the collective ideal; while Higgins grudgingly concedes the role drug-testing in his sport, he rails against the manner in which it is conducted.
"I don't agree with the drug-testing, I think it's ridiculous," he says. "I had to do it once, you spend two hours after a game waiting two hours to give a urine sample. For amateur players, I think the way they do it is ridiculous.
"Why can't they do a bit more during training sessions? Rather than having fellas after an All-Ireland semi-final, sitting around for two hours after losing a match or whatever it is?
"You get a tap on the shoulder, The team bus is waiting for 90 minutes. They can do themselves a few more favours in how they go about their business. I know they're doing their job but in terms of us, it could be done better."
So much of this conversation is about being better.
You recall Higgins' epochal tussle with Kerry's James O'Donoghue in the All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick last summer; every time the Mayo man essayed a stunning block, next time his man would shoot a point.
But Higgins - whose 2014 summer ended with a third All Star - is still naturally sore about the 2-6, even if the two goals were penalties.
"You might say two of the goals were penalties but I wouldn't have been happy in terms of my role in getting caught for them," he responds.
"And then there are an awful lot of small things that if you look back, it may have prevented a score, not just from James but from other Kerry players.
"Especially when there such fine margins, a score either way can make all the difference. People will say to you 'Ah, you did very well.'
"But ultimately he scored 2-6. I could have done things differently so you can never be happy with that sort of stat."
He could drown in regret: adhering too closely to an obviously wounded Eoghan O'Gara a year earlier; Donegal's facile early uppercuts a year earlier. . . they could overcome a man.
His own position in the defence has become entangled with Mayo's story; his transfer to the forwards trademarked a swashbuckling style which of itself militated against the colleagues he left behind.
"It's not really a conversation with the boys I've had since they came in," he says. "James Horan took a chance and put me up in the forwards. It went all right.
"I'd say I'll be staying back, I can't see it changing in the foreseeable future. Though I wouldn't say no to it!"
He will be in the corner on Sunday when Mayo take to the Hyde against Sligo, the last team to beat them in Connacht in 2010 and now seeking to prevent them matching the great five-in-a-row Galway side from the '60s.
"Call a spade a spade, I expected Roscommon to win their semi but I told people that I wouldn't be surprised Sligo might win up in Markievicz," says Higgins. "They fully deserved it, they have good forwards who can be a threat to us, they've a young midfield and they're set up well at the back.
"We won't underestimate them. They missed out in 2010 having beaten ourselves and Galway, and they won't fear us, they'll have confidence in their game-plan so we need confidence in ours."
And with that, Keith Higgins, captain of Mayo, walks head high across the main street in Castlebar.
It's the only way a man can hope to meet success.