The 37-year-old Limavady man, who felt compelled to leave his enviable role as the FAI’s Chief Scout to answer an SOS call from Derry chairman Philip O’Doherty in April 2021, is tied down until at least 2025 and hopes to remain in the post for ‘a long time to come’.
Thrust into his first managerial job, his arrival breathed new life into the Brandywell club, raising belief and expectation levels as he guided Derry off the foot of the Premier Division table before going on a remarkable run which saw the Candy Stripes qualify for European football.
The arrival of some of the biggest names in the country to the Lone Moor Road venue in the off-season has served to amplify those expectations and a 10 match unbeaten start to the season only further enhanced Higgins’ reputation as Derry topped the table following a string of impressive displays - the latest of those a 4-0 hammering of previously third placed St Pat's on their home patch last Friday night.
Higgins may be cutting his teeth in management but as a former assistant manager at title winning Dundalk and as an ex-midfielder who has won the lot domestically, he is no stranger to the day-to-day running of a football club or the ever-expanding remit of a present day football boss.
Introspection goes with the territory and the deep-thinking Higgins is meticulous in his management style with every move a carefully calculated one. However, he’s quickly learned the unrelenting nature of managing a club the size of Derry City - Ireland’s perennial underachievers!
“I can now look at other managers and genuinely know what they’re going through,” lamented Higgins. “It really does consume you.”
It’s certainly a demanding gig being manager of a League of Ireland football club as former Ireland and Chelsea star Damien Duff recently discovered. The Shelbourne boss admitted he was ‘blown away’ by the 24/7 demands of football management since taking the reins of the Tolka Park outfit. And ex-Coventry City youth Higgins is no different.
He may have celebrated his 12 months milestone as City boss with a 7-1 thrashing of UCD at Brandywell recently but his journey so far hasn’t come without its challenges, both personally and professionally. Yet he has loved every minute of it!
Reflecting on the impact he’s made and the highs and lows of the past 12 months, Higgins admits it’s been a ‘fantastic year’ but says nothing prepared him for the scale and demands of the job as his every move and decision goes under the microscope.
“When I was an assistant manager I really enjoyed the matchday experience but when you’re a manager there’s an element of pressure, it’s a completely different dynamic,” explains Higgins.
“I remember being an assistant manager and thinking that being a manager would be great. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a manager but I quickly realised it’s a different type of pressure altogether. There’s a lot more responsibilities.
“There are so many people you have to speak to within the week and you’re managing players and staff then you have to focus on the coaching side of things, how you’re going to play and set up and then obviously have an impact, hopefully, on the underage stuff and get out to as many games as possible.
“You’re speaking to academy coaches and I’d like to do that a bit more but the schedule at the minute with Friday and Monday games at times, I’m trying to get ourselves going and it’s difficult to do everything you want to be doing,” he explained.
The appointment of Alan Reynolds as his assistant this year somewhat eased the workload and it’s not just the extra set of hands on the training ground the Waterford man has brought with him. The experience of managing your hometown club has its own unique pressures and Reynolds, as an ex-Waterford boss, knows exactly the type of challenges that responsibility brings where going to the local shop for a pint of milk or a loaf of bread is no longer a simple task.
“I was always aware of the size of this football club, it’s a massive club and living in the city it never leaves you. Once you go to the shop for a loaf of bread or a carton of milk people are telling you what formation or what players to play and you soon learn how much the club means to the fans which is brilliant.
“Alan (Reynolds) brings lots of qualities and experience. He’s been an absolutely brilliant addition to the club in every way and he challenges me on a daily basis which is always good.
“To be honest, part of the reason why I wanted ‘Rennie’ to come here was because he managed Waterford and lived in Waterford. I manage Derry and live in Derry so he’s experienced what I’m experiencing.
“It’s hard to explain the different emotions. For example, your wife or kids could be saying something to you in the house but you’re not listening to a word. You’re looking through them because you’re thinking about something. It (the Derry job) consumes you,” he repeated.
“You could be walking through a shop thinking about the training session the next day or thinking about who you have to speak to that night or the next day. It absolutely takes over your life.”
And yet he wouldn’t have it any other way! In fact, cameras even captured him watering the Brandywell pitch ahead of kick-off in their last home fixture showing there’s nothing he’s not willing to lend his hand to at the club.
“To be honest, I love it! I’m making it sound like hard work and it is hard work but it’s football. We’re in an unbelievably privileged position, all of us.
“I can guarantee you 80 percent of our players, if they weren’t paid to play football, they would probably play it on a Saturday or Sunday morning anyway because they love it. To be paid to play football for a club like this, or being paid to coach or manage, it’s a privilege and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
“You look at Ciaron Harkin and Michael Duffy and their injuries, every minute on the pitch you should cherish it. We’re in a great position to be able to work in football for our jobs.”
His previous role with the Irish international team necessitated plenty of air miles and time on the road away from his wife, Lisa, and young family. And while he’s enjoying being closer to home, that work-life balance hasn’t changed too much.
“My wife is incredibly supportive and my kids are at an age where they understand the change of situation. It was more about me putting it (pressure) on myself,” reflected Higgins.
“Family has always been everything to me in life and always will be. When the going gets tough it’s your family who are always there for you. So, for me, spending time with my family is really important because it gives you some sort of work-life balance.
“It’s not necessarily about spending the time, it’s trying to shut off from everything when I’m with them but I think with experience and more time in this job that might come a bit easier.”
One year in the job and he’s already made his mark having registered Derry’s best ever start to a league campaign in the top flight of the League of Ireland.
Providing chances, believing in the individual, the team, a never-say-die attitude and making bold decisions has been a theme throughout Higgins’ tenure so far. He’s never shy of a difficult decision or offering a chance where others perhaps wouldn’t and that’s been evident in the emergence of the likes of Daithi McCallion, Liam Mullan, Caoimhin Porter and Trent Kone Doherty, youngsters who have all been involved in first team affairs this season so far.
His exciting team has also shown character to bounce back from their first blip, a 2-1 home defeat to Shelbourne with four points from their next two fixtures including that emphatic win over UCD in their last outing. It was a nice way to celebrate 12 months in charge of a club he has put so much emotional investment in.
“It was a lovely way to celebrate it,” he said after Friday’s match. “It’s been an absolutely fantastic year with a lot of hard work and the players and staff have been a joy to work with,” he said. “I hope I’m here for a long time, but we need to keep winning matches for that to be the case.”
There’s a long way to go this season and while Higgins’ reign remains in its infancy, the ex-City midfielder has certainly given Derry fans hope and a team the city can be proud of.