Tuesday 16 January 2018

Micko methods key for Jiggins and Laois Ladies

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THIS morning, Joe Higgins will go through a routine he has enjoyed since his teens.

Laois are in another big final and the 32-year-old will be at the centre of everything, just as he has been for the past 18 years.

But this time, instead of togging out it'll be the tracksuit and Bainisteoir bib that he will don, and, rather than listening to an inspirational team talk from the likes of Mick O'Dwyer, it will be Higgins who delivers the final words of encouragement as a group of Laois footballers go in search of a national title.

The miles on the clock eventually caught up on the St Joseph's man, one of the most decorated footballers in Laois' history.

Last year he had to call time on a glittering career, admitting defeat to his body with the realisation that another year on the road could force him into a hip replacement before he was 40.

The lack of a national title at senior level is a major regret, it would have completed the set.


Desperate to stay involved, he took the reigns of the county's Ladies team and after 18 months they are in the Bord Gais NFL final against Cork at Parnell Park today.

Having been part of Laois football's revival a decade ago, the terrier corner-back with pace to burn is now in charge of guiding another O'Moore county team back to the top of the tree.

Higgins was a central cog in the Laois side that burned so brightly at the turn of the century. He scored a point from centre-back as they beat Tyrone 3-11 to 1-14 at Croke Park to secure the 1997 All- Ireland minor football title, the county's second in a row.

They won the Leinster U-21 a year later, but lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland final. The minors had a similar run come to an end against Tyrone, but the production line was still coming up with the goods.

Senior success was expected to follow and O'Dwyer was brought in to deliver it. In 2003, they made their breakthrough, bridging a 57-year gap by beating Kildare to win Leinster. Higgins collected an All Star and the good times appeared to be about to roll -- a first All-Ireland title was within the realms of possibility.

But it never materialised and that day in 2003 would stand alone as the height of their success.

The next two Leinster finals ended in heartbreaking defeat. The qualifiers were rarely Laois' friend and Paul Caffrey's Dublin took a suffocating grip on the Leinster championship. The chances of another big trophy slipped away.

"When we won Leinster, it was our first one in 60 or I don't know how many years and I think we were a bit naive going in the following year," Higgins recalls.

"Definitely, naivety played a big part in the following two Leinster finals we were in against Westmeath and Dublin, we hadn't the experience of winning them and we were pipped.

"There would be regret there by most Laois people, you hear it around to this day, that we should have had three Leinster (titles) at least. Talking about All-Irelands, the same year that we won Leinster we were beaten convincingly by Tyrone in a League final so we were behind Tyrone and Armagh at that stage.

"We had beaten those Tyrone guys in the 1997 minor final, it was all the same guys who had come up at the same time. I wouldn't be able to put my finger on why we never progressed to All-Ireland standard."

By then, injuries were creeping into the squad and the years of toil at underage came to bite the players where it hurt. Higgins did his cruciate in 2004, costing him -- he says -- a yard of pace.

Although he suffered a collapsed lung, broke his collar bone and a rib on the pitch, he still felt able to contribute until a series of relatively minor injuries refused to heal.

A scan revealed he had an arthritic hip and although he attempted a comeback it didn't feel right. Retirement beckoned at the age of 30, the years of hard training, playing and working as an electrician had caught up.

"You talk about player burnout and everything else. From a young age I was playing football, and I was boxing as well, and I think the whole thing did catch up," he explains.

"Looking back now, we had a lot of miles on the clock. While I can't speak for the rest of the lads, at minor and U-21 there was definitely a lot of games there. I think at this stage with the way the game has gone and the fitness levels required, you're looking at players finishing up a lot earlier than 30 years of age now."


Combining his day job with the regime implemented by managers can't have helped either.

"On average, you'd be up and down 200 times a day and that definitely wouldn't have helped my hips anyway," he says.

"We'd be going to training and myself and Tom Kelly -- a second cousin of mine who was on the Laois panels with me all the way up along and is a carpenter -- we'd look at all these lads coming to training after sitting at office desks all day and we after putting in a hard day's work going to training.

"With Micko, when he came first, the training regime was maybe 30-35 laps of a field early in the season.

"You'd be going to training thinking about it, you'd have been dreading and thinking about training since the moment you got up in the morning."

Retirement didn't mean walking away from Laois -- Brendan Hayden had just left the Ladies for Carlow and Higgins slotted in as manager.

He hasn't repeated the regimes of any one manager, he explains, but having worked under O'Dwyer he has plenty of good examples to try out with his charges.

"I'd try and (learn) things from them," he says. "I was involved with four or five inter-county managers throughout my career, so I'd try and take bits and pieces, mostly positive stuff and you'd definitely take that on board and try and put it over to the girls. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

"Micko would have been the most high profile manager that I've been involved with and it was his manner alone, the way he treated lads, he was very good at man management without doing a whole lot of talking. His presence alone would make you want to do whatever you could for him.

"That's what he brought, we had other managers bringing something else. They were all different in their own way, but all good too."

Today, that experience built up over 16 years of pulling on the blue and white jersey will be conveyed to the team who last tasted national glory 10 years ago.

Higgins reckons there's an All-Ireland in his team -- it may be a year away. It might not be the same as earning it on the pitch himself, but you get the feeling he'll keep striving to deliver for his county.

It's what he has done for more than half of his life.

Irish Independent

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