GAA Football

'From looking like the coolest man on the pitch to a complete balloon within seconds': Former Down star Paul Higgins takes a walk down memory lane

Ballymartin's Paul Higgins won two All-Ireland titles with Down during the early 1990s, and was a cornerstone of the defence under Pete McGrath. Picture by Ann McManus

Age: 51

Club: Ballymartin

Position: Corner-back/half-back

When did you play for Down?

1986-2000. I did the three decades which was what I wanted to do.

What do you do nowadays?

I work at the Rockwell Collins factory in Kilkeel, formerly BE Aerospace. I’m there this last four years and I like it because there’s no travelling. I worked in construction all my days, up and down the road to Belfast, sometimes all over Ireland. Now it’s a 10 minute journey from this house to the gate of the factory.

Are you still involved in Gaelic football?

I’m a member of my own club and I managed them there up until a couple of years ago. My daughter’s 12 and she plays for the U14s, so that’s what I go to watch on a Sunday morning.

What do you remember about your first game for Down?

National League, I haven’t a clue, but the first Championship game was against Monaghan in ’89. They were defending Ulster champions and we beat them down in Castleblayney.

It was my first real taste of a game of that magnitude, I was playing right half-back and I remember when the ball was thrown in, the Monaghan midfielder won it and turned to pass it to the boy I was marking.

So the two of us took off, shoulder to shoulder, and I could see the ball was going to bounce over our heads so I just put the brakes on, the wee man ran on and it just bounced right over him and straight into my arms, nice as you like.

It looked great, and I looked up to see Mickey Linden making a run into the corner. It just needed a 40 or 50 yard pass and I thought ‘I’ll just flight this is there’, but sure didn’t I kick the bloody thing straight out over the sideline.

I remember running back thinking ‘by f**k you deserved that boy’ - from looking like the coolest man on the pitch to a complete balloon within seconds.

What’s your best memory from your playing days?

Winning the All-Irelands was brilliant but I always tend to remember the funny things more, and the memory that stands out is from the semi-final against Cork. Pete [McGrath] had said if I marked Colin Corkery we’d basically win the game – no pressure like.

When we ran out I was standing next to him, sort of looking at him, wondering what I was going to do with him. The man was a monster. Anyway, there was about two or three minutes left in the game and he hadn’t scored from play – that was my objective at the start.

But then I remember thinking ‘it would be some craic if I could outscore him’. We were about six points up so I took off from the kick-out, Gregory [McCartan] got it and I was shouting ‘give me the thing’, bombing on like Forrest Gump. There was a Cork man coming out at me and I was just going to cut inside and knock it over, but then I thought ‘naw, that wouldn’t be spectacular enough’. I’d all these things running through my head, I just went to hit it with the outside of my boot and the bloody thing came off the inside of the boot and went straight across to Gary Mason – and I’m shouting ‘Gary, Gary...’ as if it was a pass.

Of course they won the ball, worked it up the field to Corkery and he tapped it over. I’ll never forget it. He scored one point from play and I was at least a hundred yards from him.

A1994 duel with Cork's Colin Corkery sticks in the memory of Paul Higgins - though not for the usual reason. Picture by Ann McManus

And the worst?

Without doubt against Derry in ’92 when I got my leg broke after seven or eight minutes. Not only did I snap my leg but we lost the Ulster and All-Ireland titles all on the one day.

Biggest character you played with?

Without doubt big Ambrose Rogers, God rest him. Like myself he was a fella from Mourne, I grew beside him up the Valley Road, maybe that’s where we got all our oul silliness from.

He was an oul cod, just was constantly messing about, but the one thing he really took deadly serious was football. I was never deadly serious about football and he could never understand that. I used to wind him up, say ‘it’s only a game sure’ and he’d say ‘it’s not only a game!’ That was his mentality.

Ambrose was a great man, a great character. It’s just a pity he was taken from us far too early.

Are you glad you played in your era rather than today?

Without doubt. I think we played in the best time because people went along to see match-ups, to see high fielding. As a spectacle, it was far better to watch and play in. I wouldn’t really want to play now.

Any regrets?

I was asked to go and play for Ulster one time and I just didn’t bother because it was raining. For my family and my club it probably would have been nice, but playing for Ulster just didn’t really mean anything to me.

Interview by Neil Loughran

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