Limavady man Ruaidhri Higgins has joined Stephen Kenny's Republic of Ireland backroom team (Pic: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile)
Limavady man Ruaidhri Higgins will be Stephen Kenny's eyes and ears as the Republic of Ireland's Chief Scout / Opposition Analyst. He spoke to Michael McMullan about his love for football, his career and answering Ireland's call.
It has always been football for Ruaidhri Higgins. Always. He has never known anything different. Even in Primary Four, Leo McCloskey saw enough to call him into the Termoncanice PS team. The following year, they lost a Northern Ireland final, before going one better 12 months later.
It was the beginning for the man Stephen Kenny has put his trust into lead the scouting and analysis of the Republic of Ireland soccer team.
Higgins' obsession for the game smashed through the roof when he began to play with the local Newtowne underage teams from the age of seven.
“I wasn't one of those kids that was into cartoons, super heroes and Disney films, I was just obsessed by playing football from no age,” Ruaidhri begins. “I can't ever remember not playing it and it has been my life.”
It began to get more serious when Kenny Shiels, who was taking his son Dean to play for Lisburn Youths at the time, asked Ruaidhri's father if his son would join them.
It was a prominent shop window for scouts, but the regular 9.30 kick-offs demanded a six o'clock rise and trek up the M2.
“It was a massive commitment,” Ruaidhri said, of his parents Danny and Mary's time. For two years, it was Newtowne in the summer and Lisburn in the winter and all the travelling it entailed.
They backed him 100 percent. Ruaidhri and Paddy are their youngest sons, with a 10 year gap to Michael and Kevin.
“It is two different generations, but we are unbelievably close, the four of us,” Ruaidhri stresses.
“I have been in every corner of Europe with football and they have always followed, they have been massive supporters in my career.
“Without that upbringing and without that support, then I probably wouldn't be in the position I am in and wouldn't have had a career in this country like I had. I am very grateful and I don't take it for granted.”
Ruaidhri played Gaelic football in his youth and as a pupil of St Mary's Limavady lost an Ulster final replay to Coalisland.
Growing up, he rarely missed a game when Derry were challenging for Sam Maguire. Even then, at the age of eight, Ruaidhri was deeper in thought than most.
“The semi-final was probably the final, I remember when Johnny McGurk hit the winning score with his left foot,” Ruaidhri recalls of the 1993 triumph, with the detail he will be using to suss out Ireland's opponents.
“It was a massive passion at that time but football shaded it. My brothers, my Da and my uncles' first love would be GAA.”
His first soccer football game was a trip to Parkhead to see Celtic come from 1-0 down to beat Dundee United in the Scottish Cup. He has been to Old Trafford, but doesn't have a 'favourite' team.
“I wouldn't say I am a fan of anyone. I am a football fan and I would look out for Celtic or (Manchester) United's score but it wouldn't ruin my weekend if they didn't win.”
As the years passed, Ruaidhri's prowess in the various underage leagues attracted the attention of soccer scouts and was forward and back with 'too many clubs' before opting for Coventry City.
There were offers from more prominent clubs on the table, but Coventry attracted him. A chance for first team football, a long-term contract and hospitality all influenced his decision.
“I was made feel unbelievably welcome, even at that age, by Gordon Strachan, the first team manager,” Ruaidhri states.
“Richard Money, the Academy Director, and George Mackie (coach) made my family feel unbelievably welcome every time we went over and made a big fuss.”
Ruaidhri has no regrets about the move and completed his last two years of school in Coventry.
At the time, a growth spurt led to knee problems and he spent the first two months in plaster and he didn't kick a ball for close to six months.
“It was the right decision,” Ruaidhri points out of the club insisting he join earlier than anticipated.
“I was playing through the pain barrier at home and they weren't happy about it. Until they fixed it, I went 18 months in and out of playing because of the pain I was in. They had invested in me and were well within their rights.
“It toughened me up. I moved away from home at 14 and had to become a man before a normal teenager, that stood me in good stead. Looking back, in terms of becoming more streetwise, it gave me a sound footing.”
While he was happy with his progress in his first two years, he felt there was a 'genuine point' he caught the eye of first-team manager Gary McAllister, who liked how Ruairi played in possession and he bagged two goals on his reserve debut.
“I played really well and got people's attention around the club,” Higgins felt.
It was a quick evolution in how the game changed and relegation from the Championship sent out a warning message.
“It was all about second balls and getting up and down the pitch. That didn't suit my style. Once athleticism started to take over from creative players, I kinda knew I might not have a career at that level,” he added.
For four and half years, Coventry had high hopes for the Limavady man, but it faded away. When his contract ended, he 'wasn't too keen' on going down the leagues.
“It is a body blow to players when they get released from clubs in England. It is your dream, it is your passion, you feel you have failed.”
Just when he needed a saviour, Stephen Kenny made the first of five important phone calls to Ruaidhri Higgins.
With his teenage years coming to an end and his Coventry career over, 'an 00 353 number' lit up on Ruaidhri Higgins' phone.
Kenny had just taken up the mantle as Derry City manager in August 2004 and was putting together a squad.
“I had never spoken to him before,” Ruaidhri reveals.
“There was a definite rebuilding process when I came home, I wasn't the same person for six to 12 months. I lost my confidence and felt I had let people down,” he said, while stressing nothing was further from the truth.
“Stephen was the perfect manager for me at that time. Living at home with my parents helped massively.”
Slowly but surely he got his mojo back.
“I owe Stephen a lot. In my first six months I played a lot in the reserve team just to get playing football again. I was performing better and better and running games in the reserves and it gave me the confidence that I could get my career back on track.”
Kenny's management skills continued, when he waited for the opportune moment to bed him back into the senior squad. It wasn't a rush, but rather some games to ease him into a regular spot.
The Candystripes, with Higgins as a regular, won four League Cups in a row from 2004 to 2008. In 2006, they won the FAI Cup with a 4-3 extra-time thriller, Kenny's last game before taking over at Scottish side Dunfermline.
After losing the 2005 title to Cork City on the last day of the season, they missed the 2006 treble after Shelbourne won the league on score difference.
“Stephen brought great success and, particularly in 2005 and 2006, the Brandywell was packed and there was a great buzz”, Higgins states.
“We had a really good run in Europe in 2006 and that probably cost us the treble because of the backlog of games.”
Derry beat IFK Gothenburg and Gretna before going out against Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 on aggregate, after holding the French side scoreless at the Brandywell in the first leg.
Higgins played in both legs against Gothenburg and rates it has his European highlight.
“They had three or four Swedish internationals that played in the 2006 World Cup. We were something like 16-1 to win in Gothenburg,” he remembers.
Kenny broke down their opponents in advance of the game, showing video clips of unknown teams and how they got results against Gothenburg.
“I remember after that meeting, we walked out of it and we were thinking 'we have a helluva chance here'.
“We went out and deserved to win the game. It wasn't a smash and grab, it was an unbelievable performance. The home game we deserved to win that, we won 2-0 on aggregate and it was a massive achievement for the club.”
Derry lost the FAI Cup final in 2008 and were relegated to the First Division the following season, due to financial irregularities.
“We went four or five months without pay. I had just bought a house, I had a mortgage and I had bills to pay,” Higgins points out.
Pat Fenlon brought him to Bohemians. During the stint Bohs won the Setanta Cup, but Higgins was cup tied and missed out and again Higgins missed on a league medal on score difference to champions Shamrock Rovers.
“I probably didn't do myself justice there. I had a decent period in mid-season, I lost my form and when Derry got promoted I went back there.”
Back at the Brandywell, Higgins won a fifth League Cup and in the FAI Cup decider, his flick on setup Rory Patterson for the extra-time winner.
“We qualified for Europe through the league and were actually in the title race until four or five games in the season.”
The 2013 season, was one of Higgins' best in a Derry shirt, but when Roddy Collins came in as manager, he wasn't in the plans.
“I had a good season and had a new options and it was Stephen (Kenny) who brought me to Dundalk and we won the League Cup, that was my sixth. It gave us the confidence to push on and win the league,” Higgins recalls.
“We were trailing Cork going into the final game of the season. We played them at home and we beat them 2-0, that was an amazing night. I was involved in four titles that went to the last game of the season, I lost three and won that one.
“There has been a lot of ups and downs but thankfully there are a lot of good memories to look back on. You get lower with the downs than higher with the ups
“Throughout my playing career in the League of Ireland, I averaged a trophy a season, so I had a successful enough playing career.”
After a spell at Coleraine, where he also managed the U15 Academy squad, he began to focus more on coaching.
He remembers Willie McKeown, then Coventry's Ireland scout telling him 'you've a great eye for the game' and encouraging him to push on and get his coaching badges.
“I had no interest at that time obviously. You have this dream of becoming a star footballer, but I genuinely always had an interest in the tactical side of the game,” said Higgins.
Stephen Kenny also thought he had a 'good eye for the game' and asked him to join Dundalk's coaching staff. In the first season, they lost out to Cork City in the league.
“I stayed in the role as analyst, we won the (league and cup) double and Stephen left to take the (Ireland) U21s, Vinny (Perth) was promote to manager and I was promoted to assistant manager. So, I won the league with Dundalk in three different roles.”
When Kenny was promoted to the Ireland manager post, he once again punched Higgins' number into his phone. It was a brilliant call to get, if not altogether a shock.
“We have that relationship. He values me. It was a shock in a sense that it was the international stage, a different level.
“It is a huge honour and a privilege to be asked. I had made my mind up very quickly because it is impossible to turn that opportunity down when it comes.”
He acknowledges Dundalk, who he states were 'amazing' in giving him the platform. Going to another League of Ireland Cup would have took some serious thinking.
“When you are going to the international stage, it is incredibility tough to even consider turning that down,” Ruaidhri highlights.
Now the work starts again in earnest. When I first call, he is scouring footage of European play-off opponents Bulgaria.
His weeks are taken up with meetings, both online and face to face where circumstances allow it.
“ One thing you can be sure, Stephen will have plenty for you to do and he leaves nothing to chance,” Ruaidhri stresses.
“We have two games in early September, that's the main focus for myself, Stephen and the staff under him.”
When life gets back to normal and games return to the fixture calendar, Ruaidhri will be clocking up the air miles.
“I will be going to watch our own players in England and reporting back, as well as studying the opposition,” he adds. Nothing beats being there and seeing a game in the flesh. The TV camera will only ever follow the ball.
“If you have a bird's eye view from the stand, you can see everything that is going on. When the ball is at this end of the pitch, what is the team's shape like back here.
“When you are watching an individual player, you literally focus on the player. It is different if you are watching a team. You are analysing the whole structure of the team. It is two completely different things,” Higgins continues.
From playing on Termoncanice's school team, to now, he is now an important cog in international football and takes Stephen's approach as a 'massive compliment'.
“There are a lot of bigger names than me, who he could've went after and have loved the position. He has huge trust in me and sees the value I can bring and I take it as a massive compliment and for me, it is a huge confidence booster.”
He has never been at a major tournament as a fan. Watching from a pub as Damien Duff tore Spain apart in the 2002 World Cup clash in Suwon is a memory, a game Ireland lost on penalties.
“Damien was probably the best winger in the world and that's not exaggerating,” Higgins says of the man who, along with Alan Kelly and Keith Andrews, is now in the management setup with him.
Now, qualifying for a major tournament would be a dream, but as part of the management is also an 'objective' Higgins has an input to.
“We have an opportunity within the next two years of getting to the Euros and getting to a World Cup.
“You dream of it when you were a small boy. We will be doing everything we can, it won't be from the want of trying. We have a really good group of players to go and try to achieve something special.”
Football has always been Ruaidhri Higgins' life. His skill set has opened the latest door of opportunity.
Oran Kearney tips Higgins to be a success with Ireland. More...
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