Mayo defender Keith Higgins believes All-Ireland final days are only great occasions if you win them.
Speaking exclusively to Sportsclubsociety GAA presenter Rachel Wyse, the 31-year-old has appeared in three finals with Mayo since making his debut in 2005, but each time his team have fallen short.
Defeats to Kerry in 2006, Donegal in 2012 and Dublin in 2013 are games Higgins doesn’t have fond memories of. As a supporter, it gets worse for Mayo. If Dublin retain the Sam Maguire Cup on Sunday, the Connacht side will have an unwanted record as the team with the most All-Ireland losses (8), something they currently share with Cork.
For Higgins, the 2006 young player of the year, his seven Connacht winner medals are not enough. The All-Ireland title and bringing Sam Maguire back over the border is his dream. It’s fitting for Higgins that his hometown, Ballyhaunis, would be the first stop in Mayo on the train back from Dublin.
Speaking about his first All-Ireland final, the 2006 loss to Kerry on a scoreline of 3-15 to 3-05, Higgins said: “When you are 21 years of age, you don’t think too far down the line. I don’t remember a huge amount about the game but looking back on it, we knew we were well beaten from a few minutes in.
“I don’t remember a huge amount about the day, even the game, a few bits and pieces, just being in the hotel the morning of the game, meeting the president and then there’s a few instances from the game I would rather forget.
“People talk about All-Irelands being great occasions but they are only great occasions if you win them. We’ve been on the wrong side of a few of them so there’s not an awful lot you want to remember from them days.”
Higgins and Mayo are looking for redemption on Sunday. At this elite level, there’s close to about 40 people in the dressing room. The bond that exists in that tight group doesn’t diminish in failure but in a packed room of friends, you are alone with your thoughts in such circumstances, trying to process what went wrong…again.
Being in the packed losing All-Ireland final dressing room is a lonely place and is something Higgins doesn’t want to experience again on Sunday.
“You spend so much time with a group of individuals, a bond has to develop,” he said. “Given the success and disappointments we’ve had over the last few years, it makes that bond a bit stronger.
“It is something special, you just have to walk into the dressing room and see the camaraderie and the stories and craic that is going on, it’s hard to put a word on it but it is definitely a special bond.”
Speaking about the first defeat in 2006, Higgins said he was probably too young to fully understand it.
“Being my first year, being a bit younger I didn’t think about it as much as the older boys. It takes a few weeks to recover from, it’s always in the back of your mind. You are walking around talking to people and they are saying what if and hard luck.
“It takes a while to get over it but you have to move on.”
Higgins credits James Horan with changing the culture of the team when he became manager in 2010.
“Belief was the big thing, he put in place a setup to try and get the best out of the players,” he said. “He instilled the belief that the players were good enough to go on and deliver.
“It probably took us a few years to actually believe him, even after getting to the final in 2012. 2013 was the year we realised something special could happen here.
“Sometimes I feel we left that one behind. Belief was the big thing and that has continued on in the last number of years.”
Higgins says the belief is still there with Stephen Rochford, who is in his first year in charge of Mayo.
“Like every manager, he has his own plan, his own ways of doing things, his own ideas and he put them into place fairly quick.
“Bringing back selector Donie Buckley was a good thing from a player point of view just for that bit of continuity from the last few years.
“Bringing in a guy like Tony McEntee, who we wouldn’t have known at all, was again something different and probably something we needed. He’s a straight talker when he wants to be.
“Stephen is very similar to James, he put a good setup in place, giving the players the best opportunity to get the best out of themselves.”
The champions Dublin are a formidable outfit and a team Mayo know only too well at this stage. “This is the fifth time in five seasons we’ve played them,” said Higgins.
“It’s a healthy rivalry. We think know a lot about them but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to beat them. They are defending All-Ireland champions and are going to be hard to beat and we’ve to try and figure something out.”
Back in 2006, it was Higgins’ first semi-final and it was Dublin they were up against. The tactics started during the warm-up when the Mayo players went to warm-up in front of Hill 16, an end where Dublin traditionally go through their pre-match routine.
The Dublin players and management didn’t take this well and there was the comical sight of both teams warming up in the same confined space.
Mayo were leading that game 0-9 to 1-5 at half-time but Dublin turned it around within five minutes and were seven points up. Mickey Moran’s Mayo side refused to give up though and it was an excellent point from Ciaran McDonald in the end that separated the sides on a scoreline of 1-16 to 2-12.
Higgins believes that game was massive for the mentality of Mayo footballers.
“Anytime you play Dublin in Croke Park, it’s a full house, the atmosphere is unbelievable. To get a win, especially in the manner we did probably kick started something in Mayo. It gave us the belief to push on.”
Watch Dublin v Mayo live on Sportsclubsociety 2 HD from 2.30pm on Sunday. Catch the match for £6.99 on NOW TV. No contract.