A football life less ordinary

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 3rd February, 2010 5:00pm

A football life less ordinary

Mick with the Sam Maguire Cup in 1952

Mick Higgins is regarded as one of the great Cavan GAA players covering three decades of outstanding service to the GAA in Cavan in the forties, fifties and sixties, firstly as an outstanding player, subsequently a formidable coach and also a noted club and inter-county referee.

Mick was one of the greatest footballers of his era and an equally brilliant tactician during his term as a coach and manager of Cavan teams for fourteen years. He was a player of exceptional ability, a forward of undoubted skill and a tactician of notable merit. Through his astute management firstly with Cavan from 1956 to 1970 and spells as coach with Longford and Donegal, as well as in a similar capacity with Ulster Railway Cup teams in the sixties and early seventies, his name was spoken of in glowing terms throughout the country and particularly in Kerry where his skill and sportsmanship were glowingly recalled during the years when the keen rivalry between the counties in their quest for All-Ireland honours was at a period when both were dominant forces and captured national headlines.

Mick is the holder of three All-Ireland senior medals won in 1947, 1948 and 1952 and two national league medals in 1948 and 1950 (won home final in 1950 but were beaten by New York in the final). He had also seven Ulster senior championship medals achieved in 1943, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1952; Three Dr McKenna Cup medals in 1943, 1951 and 1953; two Railway Cup medals in 1947 and 1950 and three Ireland v Combined Universities in 1950, 1951 and 1952. As manager of the Ulster football team he coached the province to six Railway Cup successes in 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1971.

As a mark of his achievements during a long career as player and coach, he received the Bank of Ireland Hall of Fame award in February, 1988 for being selected the All-Time Football Great, and in April of the same year he received The Anglo-Celt-Tractamotors Hall of Fame sports award. In the following year he received the Texaco Hall of Fame award while other honours bestowed on him included the Coiste Siamsa, Garda Siochana, Sports Star in 2001 and Greatest Football Team (Garda) in 2005.

Mick was born in New York City in 1922. His father was a native of Kiltimagh, Co Mayo and his mother hailed from Kilnaleck. His parents had met in New York but less than five years after his birth in 1922, the family returned to Ireland and he came to his mother's birthplace in Kilnaleck. Then he changed abodes over three years to his father's native Kiltimagh before returning to Kilnaleck to complete his primary education. He spent much of his youth between Kiltimagh and Kilnaleck. Future Cavan forward Peter Donohoe was a fellow primary school pupil and Tony Tighe from Ballyjamesduff joined them when he started playing football in the Under-14 county league with Mountnugent. It is no coincidence that in later years when the Cavan team hit the national headlines the names of Higgins, Donohoe and Tighe were all part of a magnificent Cavan forward-line and also played a part in helping Mountnugent win championship and league honours.

Mick didn't play much football, until he began his secondary education in St Mary's Marist Brothers Secondary School in Dundalk. Here he came under the tutelage of Derry-born Fr MacOscar who was a real GAA enthusiast. Mick's career blossomed and he helped them win the MacRory Cup in 1938 playing at right-half forward. With the Louth side, which then played in Ulster college's competition the 15 year old had won his first major trophy. After completing his secondary education Mick went to live with his uncle-in-law in Celbridge, Co. Kildare. His prowess on the football field soon came to the attention of the Kildare minor selectors. In 1940 with Mick at centre-field, Kildare reached the Leinster final but lost to Louth.

A year later he joined the Gardai and played his first game for Cavan in 1943 when he came on as sub against Monaghan in the Ulster junior final. Within months he was on the senior team and continued as a playing member until the end of the 1953 championship campaign. His last game was in the unsuccessful defence of their All-Ireland and Ulster senior titles against Armagh in the provincial final. He was 31 at the time, a fairly young man to have retired from the county scene.

From the time he began playing with Cavan, there was one distinguishing feature about Mick's game, his ability to get away from an opponent. In 1943 he was left-half forward on the team that lost to Roscommon in the replayed All-Ireland final. Cavan had finished that game with fourteen players when Joe Stafford had been ordered off with fifteen minutes left. Later, a melee, following a disputed Roscommon goal, resulted in a number of Cavan players being suspended. In the end, Cavan lost by five points, but were back again the following year to meet Roscommon in the semi-final.

Weakened by the absence of three players under suspension, Cavan suffered a heavy defeat. Injury cost him his place in the 1945 All-Ireland final team against Cork which Cavan lost. It has always been maintained that it was a game Cavan simply threw away, but is generally recognised that a big factor in the defeat was the absence of Higgins.

However two years later came the famous win over Kerry in the 1947 All-Ireland final in the Polo Grounds, New York. Roscommon again provided the opposition in the semi-final but had to give way to a rampant Cavan side. In the final in New York, Cavan began badly against Kerry and were eight points down after ten minutes. But before half-time goals from Stafford and Higgins changed the course of the game and Cavan went on to win and create history as the first and only team to win the Sam Maguire Cup outside Ireland.

In reflecting the victory over Kerry, Mick remarked that he remembered the flight more than the game due to his nervous disposition about air travel. "I thought we would crash into the sea. If the same plane was in service today I wouldn't travel".

The team travelled on that historic trip five days before the game. Mick, like the rest of the squad, had been on holiday for the previous two weeks and in regular training with the rest of the panel in Ballyjamesduff from early morning until late in the evening. Said Mick "It was the toughest two weeks you could ever spend on holiday without pay".

While the players were compensated for the trip to New York by the Co Board it didn't make them rich as a result. Only the players travelled by plane - the subs and officials travelled later by boat. "Our route took us by the Azores and we stopped there due to engine trouble. We tried to get off the ground but failed and I'll never forget that experience". It was the first time Mick or indeed other members of the team had been on a plane but it turned out to be a memorable trip.

Mick later remarked that the 1947 team was definitely the greatest and best ever team to wear Cavan jerseys and he was of the opinion that it had all the qualities which were sadly lacking with most county football teams at the present time.

That game in New York was something of a homecoming for Mick. "Growing up in Kilnaleck, there was only football, there was no such thing as snooker, badminton or whatever. Sure that time you couldn't even go to a soccer match or you would be suspended. A player, Barney Cully from Arva might have been full-back in the team which played in the Polo Grounds but he was suspended the previous February for playing rugby. He was then a student in the Dental College in Dublin and played at full-back for them in a Universities soccer league".

Mick added "When I moved to Dublin to work as a barman I played a few soccer matches with St James's Gate at junior level but I wasn't a good soccer player. I was playing on the wing where at that time wingers used to come much more into the game. I don't know what name I played under. I didn't even know some of the players on our own team. I just went out to play because some of the fellas came in to the pub and asked me. It's laughable when you look back and the business about the ban and the names and everything".

Cavan retained their All-Ireland title in 1948 against Mayo, Higgins operating once again at centre-forward. Cavan led by 3-2 to 0-0 at half-time, thanks to the strong wind but Mayo came back and with ten minutes left it was 4-4 apiece. Peter Donohoe shot the lead point from a free and Higgins was in the action when he blocked a Peader Carney 14 yards free and Cavan held on to the title.

Mick was still around in 1952 to bring another All-Ireland senior title to Cavan and crown an illustrious playing career. It took two games to defeat old rivals Meath who had thwarted Cavan in 1949 but in the replay Mick was supreme and produced one of his greatest games at centre-forward. In the semi-final against Cork there seemed to be no way back for the Breffni side when they trailed by 2-3 to 0-2 and only ten minutes remaining but in times of crises Higgins set Croke Park alight and inspired, no doubt by his captaincy, proceeded to tear the Cork defence to shreds and with the able assistance of Tony Tighe the team somehow managed to win the game by scoring eight points in the closing stages, Higgins scoring five of these.

One month later, Cavan drew with Meath in the final, which was a repeat of the '49 decider. In the replay however Cavan were the better side as Higgins collected his third All-Ireland medal and as captain received the Sam Maguire Cup, following in the footsteps of Jim Smith (1933), Hughie O'Reilly (1935) and John Joe O'Reilly (1947'48). That final was a personal triumph for him, when as captain, he contributed seven of his side's nine points, helping the team to victory by 0-9 to 0-5, and proudly lifting the Sam Maguire Cup, the last time Cavan have achieved such a feat.

From the time Higgins first came to prominence with Cavan in 1943, he played virtually every game at centre-forward and won no fewer than seven Ulster championship medals in the number 11 jersey, bringing fear, heartache and frustration to defences throughout the country. He also won a national league medal in 1948 and won two Railway Cup medals.

Just a year after the 1952 All-Ireland title success, Mick played at corner-forward for Cavan against Armagh in the Ulster final. Cavan lost that match and it was his last appearance in the famous blue jersey. At 31 Mick said at the time;"I felt that the next place for me would be on the subs bench and I thought it was an appropriate time to step down".

In commenting on the success of the Cavan teams of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, and the lack of it since, Mick said "It would have been a surprise if Cavan didn't win an Ulster senior title in his era. At the present time it would be a surprise if they did".

Mick's job as a member of the Garda Siochana took him to many places and he won championship medals with teams in Meath, Louth and Cavan after coming to live in Bailieborough in 1950.

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