Little moments can play a big part in writing history.
Back in October 2014, Dundalk welcomed Cork City to Oriel Park for a final day showdown which they needed to win if they were to clinch their first league title in 19 years.
Stephen Kenny’s side were dealt a major blow, however, when after just nine minutes Chris Shields limped off.
Sprung from the bench into the action was Ruaidhrí Higgins, who by his own admission had been something of a bit-part player that season.
There’s little doubt the change would not have happened – at least not as soon – but for Shields’ injury. As it turned out however, it proved a stroke of fortune with Higgins going on to play a big role in the goals from Stephen O’Donnell and Brian Gartland which decided the tie.
In doing so he ensured he completed the full set of domestic honours in Irish football but more significantly it was the start of a period of dominance for Dundalk that continued after his departure to Coleraine the following season and when he returned as part of the backroom team a few years later in 2017.
Higgins still looks back on that night at a packed Oriel Park as one of the best of his career.
“The game had started at 100 miles per hour and it was real helter skelter because there was so much at stake,” he said.
“I felt that my experience on the night told and the type of player I was worked for us in that environment. I didn’t have Chris Shields or Richie Towell’s legs to get around the park but what I did have was a calm head and a decent range of passing and I felt that helped settle the game for us.
“It’s not easy coming on that early in a match. Chris Shields had an unbelievable season that year. That was the year he really took off and everyone started talking about him whereas I was in and out of the team. I remember just sitting in the dug out having a chat and watching the game and then all of a sudden you’re thrown into a game that you probably never expected to play more than 20 minutes or half an hour in at a push.
“To get on the pitch after about 10 minutes and put in a half decent performance, I was delighted with that but I think we really deserved the league. We were the best team in the country that year and it’s amazing what has happened since that.
“I feel that was a catalyst for the club to really kick on. I also feel the League Cup win that year was huge in the sense that a lot of the players hadn’t won anything before. That gave them the drive to kick on because they now knew what it took to win. It was a real springboard for future successes.
“The celebrations that night and that weekend were incredible. They’re something I’ll never, ever forget and I’m just thankful to have been a part of it.”
It would be the first of three title triumphs he would be involved with during his time with Dundalk but Higgins doesn’t see that journey of success ending any time soon.
“It is a great achievement. I’m not really one to look back too much but I will always look back at my time at Dundalk with real fondness.
“2014 was a special, special year and the best dressing room that I was probably ever involved in. There was just a real connection with the supporters as well and then to go and win the league the way we done it on the last day against our biggest rivals was incredible.
“It was the weekend of my 30th birthday and my folks and whole family were at the game. It was just an amazing night and as a player it was definitely in the top three or four nights that I’ve ever had in my career.
“I obviously moved on after that before coming back in 2017 but I genuinely never expected the club to have the success and the dominance that we have had over the last few years.
“If you look at what Stephen did at Dundalk, he was taking players that others didn’t want. I know people will talk these days about the club’s budget but that budget was earned on the pitch. In my opinion it’s the best club job I’ve seen in Irish football and what he achieved with Vinny as his assistant is a credit to them.”
While his first year back in 2017 saw the club finish runners-up to Cork City in both the league and FAI Cup, he feels it ruled the fire for the successes of 2018 and 2019.
“Out of a negative you can take a great positive.
“That year really re-lit the fire when we didn’t win the league that year. It hurt everybody because the league was probably over at the halfway point even though Cork probably didn’t win it until there was about three matches to go. It re-lit the fire for everybody and I had no doubt coming back then in 2018 that we were going to kick on and be successful.
“The big regret from me from 2017 was the Rosenborg game in Europe. I probably felt on chances over the two games that we probably deserved to go through against what was a top class European club so it was a real bitter pill to swallow that we didn’t go through that night over there.
“That year wasn’t a disaster from the point of view of what followed because the hunger that everyone got from not achieving what we wanted to drove us on for the following year.
“2018 was massive because there was a lot of things flying around saying the bubble had burst and that sort of thing so to come back and win it so comprehensively was brilliant and we were a penalty shoot out then of winning everything last year.”
Higgins puts the success down to a core group of players that he is proud to call friends.
“You have Brian Gartland, Sean Gannon, Dane Massey, Andy Boyle, Chris Shields, John Mountney and Pat Hoban who were there in 2014 and I don’t think that bond we had will ever be broken because that was many people’s first league title and I’m sure if you asked the lads what was the best nights of their career, that would be right up there with anything that they have done.
“It’s very difficult to leave such a good group behind but the players to a man last year were really, really unbelievable and a joy to work with. They make your job easy.
“The respect they show anyone who comes into the club is top class. I genuinely can’t speak highly enough of them and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that the success will be continued with that group of players and staff at the club.
“I’d like to thank the club for my time there. From the supporters to everyone involved, it has been an amazing time in my life and I wish them all the best in the future,” said Higgins.
While the lockdown imposed as a result of Covid-19 meant that Ruaidhrí Higgins was unable to say goodbye to his friends and colleagues at Dundalk in the manner he might have liked, the new Republic of Ireland Chief Scout and Opposition Analyst made a point of personally contacting everyone involved with the club to thank them for their support over the years.
The Derry man is unique in many ways having won league titles in three different roles with the club – as a player in 2014, as opposition analyst in 2018 and as assistant manager last year.
As a result, he has built up many fond memories of his time at Oriel Park that he says he won’t forget in a hurry.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Dundalk Football Club,” he said.
“The players, in particular, I just thought they were an amazing bunch to work with and I’ve no doubt with the players and staff that remain there will continue to be successful.
“I’m not just talking about the likes of the backroom or medical staff either, I’m talking about the office staff – Ailish and her team, the groundsmen John and Jimmy and Martin Connolly and Colm Murphy. I can’t speak highly enough about the staff at the club but in particular the players are incredible.
“I’ll miss them a lot because first and foremost they’re fantastic people. I didn’t really know John Gill before he came to the club but he was a good man who gave me great advice at the right times when I needed it and I’ll always value that.
“We were fortunate too to have great guys like Danny Miller and David Murphy working as physios. Personally, I don’t believe we would have won the league last year without them.
“With people like that at the club, and others, I’ve no doubt Dundalk will kick on and continue the success they’ve had.”
Higgins said he would have liked to have said goodbye to the squad in a different manner.
“It was difficult for me. With some of the players there, I’d have relationships going back an awful long time. The likes of Patrick McEleney and Michael Duffy, we go back a long time to when we were at Derry and then I’ve obviously played with players who were involved in the 2014 campaign and been on the staff since 2017 so there are a lot of players who have been there a long time who I’d have long standing relationships with.
“I phoned every member of the squad and thanked them but it was just a shame that I didn’t get to do it on a personal level or in a group but I’m just delighted to have played a small part in the recent success of the club.
“Hopefully I’ll be back in Oriel sooner rather than later though.
“My family, especially my mother and father, always say to me about how welcome they’re made feel every time they came to Oriel Park. They have a real soft spot for the club and that will continue. I just wish the club every success in the future and I’m sure with all the playing staff and staff around the club, they’ll continue to go from strength to strength.”
So if it’s Derry v Dundalk in the Brandywell, who will Higgins be shouting for?
“I’ll stay in the house,” he laughed.
A role with your national team is big at any time but given the amount of games the Republic of Ireland are facing into over the next couple of years, Ruaidhrí Higgins believes he couldn’t be taking up his new role as Chief Scout and Opposition Analyst at a better time.
While exact dates for competitions remain somewhat up in the air due to the disruption of Covid-19, what is known is that at some stage in the next 12 months or so, Stephen Kenny’s Irish side will be taking part in the Nations League, Euro 2020 play-offs, hopefully the European Championshps themselves and the World Cup Qualifiers for Qatar 2022.
Throw into the mix a number of friendlies and the national side faces the possibility of playing an unprecedented amount of games in the coming months.
While that presents its own challenges, it couldn’t be any better as far as Higgins is concerned.
“It’s unprecedented at international level but it’s very, very exciting as a result,” he said.
“For me, coming from club football, I’m used to having regular matches and that’s something that I enjoy. I’m sure the coaching staff and Stephen will embrace it as well.
“There will be three different competitions within a 12 month period and it’ll be very, very exciting. The more football for me the better. You can’t beat it.
“Working in football is amazing but to be working at that level is a real honour and privilege for me and I can’t wait to get going.
“Personally, it enhances your confidence levels and gives you more belief when someone like Stephen places this sort of trust in you. I believe in myself anyway but I’m just thankful for the opportunity he has given me.
“We see the game through the same sort of eyes,” he said.
With the Premier League and Championship getting underway this week, one of Higgins’ tasks will be keeping tabs on Irish players for Kenny but he does not know as yet if he will be able to attend games due to the fact they will be played behind closed doors initially.
“It’s up in the air at the minute,” he said when asked about travel to games.
“That is part of my job going to England probably twice a week but I’m not sure if different associations will allow one or two people into the games.
“We’ll have a clearer picture on that in the next week or so I’d imagine but the sooner we can go and watch players and teams live the better but obviously health at this moment in time is the most important thing.
“We have Wyscout and InStat and all the technology needed to track players but it still doesn’t beat being there and watching players with a bird’s eye view and watching the game properly.”
While Higgins will be keeping an eye on players who can do a job for Ireland at an international level, he doesn’t envisage huge changes in personnel from those who featured under Mick McCarthy.
“Everyone in football has different opinions on different players. I think we’re all aware of the type of player that Stephen likes and personally they’re the ones who I like myself but there won’t be drastic changes.
“I’m sure there will be players who Stephen will feel he can get a lot out of but I wouldn’t imagine there will be any drastic changes in terms of personnel but we’ll see. Again, it all depends on club form, injuries and all that sort of stuff but you can sure that Stephen will be on top of all the stats and that we’re watching every game possible and reporting back with good information.
“I’m sure then he’ll go on and make the right decisions from there.
“It’s really important that we create that club environment. Everywhere Stephen has been he has created a good environment and you can see he did the same with the Under 21s based on how they play and how they celebrate goals. It is something we’ll try and create.”
Higgins envisages a bright future.
“It’s exciting times ahead. There are a lot of good players available to us and a lot of exciting talents coming through the ranks so it’s a really good time to be involved in the senior international setup and I can’t wait to really get stuck in in the heart of it.”
Little did Ruaidhrí Higgins think when he dealt with the media after Dundalk’s victory over Finn Harps in Ballybofey back at the start of March that it would be his last match with the club he had represented in three different roles over the previous seven seasons.
While the Limavady man has spoken to the press at various times since taking up the position of Vinny Perth’s assistant at the start of 2019, the game in Donegal on March 6th was the first time he has dealt with the entire post match duties – a role which up to that point had been normally fulfilled by either Perth himself or first team coach John Gill.
The Argus was the last of the ‘Dundalk media’ to chat to Higgins on the night and perhaps the only one to bring up the possibility of games being postponed due to the possible threat of the Coronavirus.
Higgins admitted at the time that most of the chat in relation to it had been light-hearted. Little did he or any of us know how quickly matters would escalate.
It’s fair to say Covid-19 has changed the world and while there are bigger issues than football, it has changed the face of the game here as well. Some 13 weeks on the domestic league is still postponed with question marks hanging over whether it will return this year. Perhaps the most noteworthy change though came in early April when former Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny was fast-tracked into the position of Republic of Ireland senior team manager.
It soon emerged that he wanted Higgins as part of his team as Chief Scout and Opposition Analyst and the deal was officially concluded last month.
Looking back on a whirlwind few weeks, Higgins said he couldn’t have envisaged back then where he would be heading into the summer.
“I was actually thinking about that because I was looking back thinking what was my last game,” Higgins said when the match was raised with him last week.
“We were actually very good that night but I wouldn’t have believed that it would be my last.
“Obviously Stephen had been scheduled to take over the job on August 1st and then in early April he was announced as the manager. I think that was on the first Saturday in April and then the approach to the club for me was made at the end of the following week so it all happened very, very quickly. It’s strange but football is like that. One week you’re stuck in the middle of something and then the next week you’re in a different job or in between jobs.
“Looking back to that night though, it was a good performance and a nice way to end my time with the club I suppose.”
While Higgins and Kenny have been close for some time having first worked together on the latter’s arrival at Derry City 16 years ago, the 35-year-old admits it came as a huge surprise to him when the Ireland call came.
“Genuinely, it was a bit of a shock to me but he obviously sees value in what I bring to him.
“I’m delighted that he has brought me with him but I’m sad in a lot of ways too to be leaving Dundalk but when you have a chance to work on the international stage that is very, very hard to turn down.
“It’s a familiar role to me and it probably suits my skill set. I spent a few years doing it with Dundalk and I loved it but this is international football and there is a lot at stake so you have to make sure you get it spot on, get the opposition players spot on and get their systems of play spot on.
“We have a lot of time between now and the first couple of Nations League games so there’s a lot of time for all the staff to look into what we’re going to come up against and prepare accordingly.
“It’s a role that I’m excited to take on and I’m delighted to be part of the staff going forward,” he said.