Monday, February 15, 2021

By John Cuffe

In time, some astute young scholar will look at Mayo 2011 to 2020 and do a PhD on the county’s journey. The likes of Keith Higgins will feature strongly in any examination of theoretical evidence that would support the PhD.

Ballyhaunis native Keith Higgins will go down as one of the all time greats of Mayo football despite retiring without the ultimate accolade. Pictures: INPHO

Before one starts a PhD they must submit a paper called a proposal. The proposal will have the title of the PhD, what the candidate hopes to accomplish, the evidence, the theory and the methodology required to support the evidence presented to the examining board. It is no walk in the park. Facts must be supported, evidence separated from gut feelings and high stool bar talk. Doing a PhD is a cold experience, not what many think it is. If the facts don’t fit, then discard them.
So what do you put in your proposal? Let’s start with a title: ‘The Mayo Quest For All-Ireland Validation Between the Years 2011-2020. Glorious Failure or Tactically Naïve and Institutionally Barren?’ Then you outline how you are going to tackle the proposal. You lay out your methodology, your comparatives, the evidence you are going to draw on to support or negate your title. In researching a topic like this, one is very lucky. There is a comparative and exact timeline to draw on. The 10 years from the 2011 to 2020 seasons provide rich data.
The 2010 season ended with Cork as All-Ireland champions and Mayo reaching a new nadir. The expectation going into 2011 was that Cork would build on their success and Mayo would have to reset. And Cork didn’t exactly go away, they added successive league titles in 2011 and 2012, but a storm was gathering on the horizon and in championship football, Cork would not be a player. In 2011, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo were the All-Ireland semi-finalists. All four would hold pole position for the next decade with only Tyrone and a single Galway appearance at semi-final stage. The 2011 semi-finalists became a select group.
Within them emerged a team of the ages, Dublin. They are the comparison for this proposal. They had last won an All-Ireland in 1995. Their high point after that was 2008 when they defeated Roscommon in the 2008 All-Ireland junior final. Don’t scoff. From that team came Darren Daly, Mick Fitzsimmons, Dennis Bastick, Jonnny Cooper and Eoghan O’Gara. Darren Homan was a sub. The first five mentioned went on to amass, so far, 35 senior All-Ireland medals between them. Who’d have thunk that in 2008?
Well plainly someone did. Dublin under the on-pitch leadership of Pat Gilroy reached their ‘startled earwigs’ moment and ripped up the so-called Blue Book. Off pitch, under the careful visionary of CEO John Costello and others, Dublin drew up a blueprint called the Blue Wave and implemented it. Mayo got embroiled in what became known as the Mayo Strategic Plan, a visionary document that seemed to please most but not those who counted. Benjamin Franklin put it this way. ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’. By now Keith Higgins was a six-year veteran on the Mayo team with four Connacht medals. One of his opponents on the Dublin team, Alan Brogan was in his tenth season with seven Leinster medals. The divergence wasn’t big.

Conal Keaney of Dublin bows in despair as Keith Higgins celebrates Mayo’s victory in the 2006 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Higgins would go on to appear in six senior finals and was on the bench for a seventh last December.

Dublin’s win over Kerry in 2011 did not presage what was to come down the line. Mayo tanked them in the replayed league match of 2012 and for most of that year’s All-Ireland semi-final whitewashed them before nerves set in, but a three point victory was secured nonetheless. Surely Mayo and Higgins would reach the Promised Land? Donegal were the opponents or more importantly, Kerry weren’t. Mayo should never fear the likes of Donegal. They did, game over inside first 10 minutes. Tactically Donegal gave a master-class. Mayo didn’t turn up on the day.
A year later Jim Gavin was the Dublin manager. Astute and non-media adhesive, Gavin set about the recalibration of Dublin. They would now shed the more conservative aspects of Gilroy and the dependency on their keeper for free taking. On the other side of the equation Mayo also opted for all-out attack, but then with Mayo, wasn’t that always the only plan they had.
As the two sides converged towards the inevitable September showdown, Kerry showed an alarming glitch in the Dublin machine. Gooch Cooper gave an exhibition as he weaved magic amid the Dublin back six. Such was the pasting Ger Brennan took that Dublin replaced him with Cian O’Sullivan who restored some calm to their defence. They squeezed through.
Mayo also, by their standards, went radical. Keith Higgins was switched from centre-back for the Connacht final to centre-forward where his speed of feet and mind threw sides from the All-Ireland quarter-final onwards. A shellacking of Donegal, 4-17 to 1-10, will correctly take its place as one of the most powerful displays by any side ever in championship football in Croke Park.
The All-Ireland final saw Dublin as opponents and from the off Mayo took the game to them. Higgins DID score a point but Hawkeye got it wrong as it was chalked off; I myself saw its flight over the far Canal End post.
And for that first half, though lacking the destructive dynamite activated against Donegal (this was an All-Ireland final after all), Mayo kept Dublin in check. One of the reasons was the will-o’-the-wisp intelligent running and probing of Higgins at half-forward.
A half-time shuffle saw Higgins repositioned into his usual position at the rear because of an injury to Tom Cunniffe, and Ger Brennan, a man who was eyeing the dreaded hook before half-time, was now free to attack. Which he did, kicking a point with his ‘weak’ right foot, no Higgins to worry him. Mayo lost by a point. Tactically they lost again. And Dublin, with all their advocation of the beautiful game, tactically fouled Mayo for the last 10 minutes in order to win. And that is what winners do — win, at all costs.
Keith Higgins will be central to any theoretical research on Mayo football. He, along with Lee Keegan, was one of the players all the big counties like Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone would covet. Mayo fought five finals with Higgins on the front, plus a replay. He was in the bench for his sixth final last Christmas week but Santa mustn’t have got the letter. It’s a cold unsentimental world out there and Keith would be the first to acknowledge that. Four All Stars attest his national standing, so too Young Player of the Year, National League winner, multiple Connacht titles, captaining Mayo to U21 success plus a hurler of Galway quality. Higgins mined deep and deserved the ultimate medal.

Keith Higgins arriving to last season’s Connacht SFC final in Pearse Stadium with Mayo teammate Kevin McLoughlin.

For the PhD we would need to examine the underpinning foundations that separate Dublin from the rest. We know about the population, the access to training, the sponsorship, but there is something deeper too. It wasn’t the above that put Kilkenny where they are or Kerry before them. And when Dublin’s Daly, Fitzsimmons, Bastick, Cooper and O’Gara’s high point was Junior All-Irelands in 2008, Higgins was a national name. Structurally, have Dublin got the things that matter, away from, but central to the pitch, right? Have they been ruthless in the pursuit of excellence? Subtract the information and distil it.
Maybe we might find out why Keith Higgins, a truly great of the GAA, walked away after featuring in six All-Ireland finals but never winning one. Keith did all he could to win one but could everyone else connected with the tribe say the same? And I’m focusing here on the scaffolding off the grass.
A calm, if that’s the word, has settled on Mayo retirements. All of the lads did the county proud, but Keith was amongst the coveted cream that all followers drooled at. He will be missed and we will travel a long road before we find such a warrior again. Now folks, get stuck into the PhD and best of luck.

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