By Michael McMullan
DERRY attacking ace Conall Higgins said a combination of factors made him feel an All-Ireland Minor title was something the squad could accomplish.
Higgins was one of five players from last year’s team who were narrowly beaten at the semi-final stage by eventual champions Galway.
After missing this year’s semi-final win over Dublin, the Rossa player was back in the fold and kicked three points in Sunday’s win over Monaghan.
“We have been working since the end of October or November and this has been the end goal the whole time,” he said. “For all that work to pay off, it’s unreal you can’t really describe it.”
Clutching the TG4 Man of the Match award and wearing a Derry scarf knitted by his late Granny Mairead, Higgins was buzzing as he posed for photos with family and friends.
Mairead Mulholland, a sister of Derry’s 1965 All-Ireland minor winning coach Sean O’Connell, had been laid to rest days earlier.
“I’d say even at the start of the year, the work ethic and the talent in the team,” Higgins said in reply when asked when he felt Derry had a team capable of going the whole way to lift the Tom Markham Cup.
“We had the right management and everything. We knew if we worked hard and stuck to our plan then we could make it.”
It was also an eventful few footballing weeks for Higgins. It was his pressure kick that pulled Derry from the jaws of defeat to a penalty shootout with Monaghan. Then, after goalkeeping heroics it was his late penalty that won the shootout.
After providing the assist for Eamon Young’s goal in the win over Galway, injury ruled him out of the Dublin game.
“I was told if we were losing or it was getting tight, I would probably be coming on,” Higgins said of the semi-final.
“Thankfully the boys played unreal and I didn’t have to come on. I was back at training for a couple of weeks and trying to get fit for the game. I knew I was starting by Friday, so I just got my head into the game and tried to do the best I could.”
Sunday was the 15th game of a season that saw them just seconds away from winning the treble, only for a late Donegal goal to pull the Ulster League title from their grasp.
Even leaving Glen that day, there was the feeling the defeat would only sharpen the focus for the year ahead.
“Minor players never believe you until it happens,” manager Damian McErlain said minutes after the game, referring to how important it is to keep a focus at all times.
As the season went on, they grew in character and Higgins said the special bond was one of the hallmarks of playing on the team.
“From the start of the year, we didn’t really know each other that well but now we are best friends,” he said.
“You can see it in the games. You can see how much of a connection we have and how well we play together, that’s because we bonded so well together.”
Another aspect was learning how to deal with the occasion and while Derry fans were outnumbered in Armagh on Sunday, Higgins could still hear their own fans getting behind them.
He also had the helping hand of older brother Dan, an All-Ireland minor winner from 2020, to lean on for any nuggets of advice.
“He gives me plenty of advice. He gave me a few pointers on how to stay focussed in the game and not let your drift and that definitely helped.”