Trevor Spillane of the Kilkenny People newspaper, spoke to Peter Higgins about his experience at the FIFPro Tournament in Norway, this article orginally appeared in the newspaper on 1 February 2013.
From Kilkenny to Waterford, via Oslo. It sounds like a pretty lengthy detour, but Peter Higgins took the road less travelled before deciding where he would pitch up for the new season of the Airtricity League.
The Kilkenny midfielder travelled to Norway recently as part of the PFAI (Professional Footballers' Association of Ireland) team that took on Scandinavian
opposition. The Irish were part of a four-team FIFPro tournament, along with Sweden,
Norway and Finland, designed to help soccer players earn new deals for the forthcoming season, whether at home or abroad.
Higgins was part of the Waterford United team that narrowly missed out on promotion
to the Premier Division last season. Although he played for a club just down the road, the prospect of playing so far from home was nothing new to him. After all, he had spent four years playing in the US while on a sports scholarship.
"What the PFAI have done in organising the team for Oslo has been brilliant," he said.
"The training under Pat Scully was top notch, while the trip away was a great experience. It was well worth doing - it was a massive help to players. You're getting the chance to play, to test yourself against teams from other countries - the Swedish team we played against were a really good side. Technically, they were excellent
and they were all in great shape. I hadn't played a game for months,
so to even get so much playing time under my belt in Oslo was good as it
helped to keep me ticking over."
The Scandinavians take this tournament seriously. The Swedish team was coached by Jesper Blomqvist, a former Champions League winner with Manchester United, and ex-Celtic player Vidar Riseth, while ex-Leeds United player Eirik Bakke helped to
train the Norwegian side.
"They had been training for two to three months for this tournament," Higgins said of the opposition. "We came in for about six weeks of work, but they take it very seriously over there. There were some top players on show during the games."
Like people in other walks of life, work was the main reason Higgins took the chance on the Oslo trip. Club finances being as precarious as they are, he was one of a number of players who were left facing the unknown after Waterford's failure to win
promotion to the top flight.
"If we had won promotion with Waterford, I reckon a lot of the contracts would have been looked after well before Christmas," he said. "At that stage I had an idea that I was wanted at the RSC, but I still wanted to go on the trip to see what was out there."
And if the chance had come up to play over there he would have gone.
"Playing abroad wouldn't have been a problem - I spent a few years in college in the States so I'm used to playing outside Ireland," he said.
"If something had come up, I would have grabbed at the chance. It would have been a great opportunity to test yourself against these players on a daily basis.
Having featured in Ireland's two games in the competition, Higgins rated the standard of Scandinavian football as being very high.
"There were some great footballers on show across the tournament," he said. "They were exactly like us; players who had been released by their clubs and were looking for new contracts."
Good as the experience was in Oslo, Higgins didn't exactly make the best of starts. Ireland took on Norway in the tournament opener and found themselves a goal down inside 60 seconds, Yanly Ayala scrambling home from a loose ball in the box.
The Irish pressed hard and got their reward when Stephen Maher netted a penalty three minutes from time. The game finished 1-1 after the 60 minutes, sending the tie straight to penalties. With Norway leading 6-5 Higgins, who was introduced to the fray in the second half, stepped forward to take a kick...
"I was the unlucky one," he said. "I don't usually take pens, but as it had come down to sudden death I knew I'd have to take one at some stage. I went to take my kick, the goalkeeper guessed the right way and that was it.
"It happens," he said. "Someone has to miss and unfortunately it was me. It would have been nice to get the result and go on to the final, but we knew the game wasn't about winning and losing - it was more about getting yourself out there and playing well in
front of the scouts and managers.
The second game went much better for Higgins and the Irish side, as they beat Finland 2-0 in the third/fourth place playoff.
"We had a much better performance in the second game," he recalled. "I was much happier with my own performance. I won the penalty for our first goal (Shane Treacy netting after just six minutes) and then won the free-kick which led to our second goal in the second half (Barry O'Mahony heading home from a Dean Marshall delivery) so I was delighted with that. I also got to play the full game, which was great.
"It was a tough tournament, as we played on an indoor Astroturf pitch," he said. "I had never experienced anything like that before. It was one of the biggest pitches I'd ever played on - it's up there with Shamrock Rovers' home in Tallaght. It took a little bit
of getting used to, but the two games were a great experience. I thought I did well over the two games."
As well as getting used to a new playing surface, Higgins also had a strange atmosphere to contend with.
"There were no fans there - it was just scouts and managers watching the games," he said. "We brought over about 20 players and had six or seven coaches with us, so I'd say it was the same for the other countries involved.
"It was a bit weird," he said of the experience. "You wouldn't even see the scouts because they were up in the top tier, so it was like playing in an empty indoor stadium. It was grand once you got going, but was a little different than what we're used to. Once you go out on the pitch you don't concentrate on anything else but the game, so you quickly block it out."
Given that the players were out there chasing contracts, you might have thought they would be regular contact with teams and managers while in Norway, but this wasn't the case.
"We played our first game at 10am, then went for food and relaxed in the hotel ahead of our second game," said Higgins. "There wasn't any talking to managers or scouts - it was more a case of playing the game, then going back to the hotel before returning
to the stadium that evening for the match against Finland. It was more a case of when you got back to Ireland, you hoped to hear from the various managers."
Higgins didn't have to wait to hear from foreign teams, as there was an Irish offer on the table waiting for him when he came home.
"Waterford United and Paul O'Brien had been in touch, so I knew that was an option if nothing came from Oslo," he said. "That took a bit of pressure off me in Norway, so when I came back I spoke to Paul and agreed a new contract with him and John O'Sullivan, the club chairman.
"It's nice to get that sorted," he said of his new deal. "It's good to know that you have a job for the next 10 months."
The bug of playing soccer abroad first bit Higgins when, as teenager, he left Ireland to play soccer for Drury College in the US.
"I was doing a one-year Association Football course in Dublin's Colaiste Ide (a course designed to help people earn the chance to become student athletes in the US)," he recalled. "Coaches from the States would come over to watch you train and play. They offered me a full scholarship, which was too good to turn down - that scholarship was
worth about $20,000 a year, or $80,000 over the full term of my course, so I just jumped at the chance.
That time in the US gave Higgins a first-hand sight as to the rising standard of the game in the States.
"The standard of players were very good, not least at Drury," he said. "One guy had come to the college having come up through the ranks with Scottish clubs Dundee and Inverness. We had a couple of internationals in our squad, including a striker from Haiti
who was as good a player as you'd see anywhere.
"The coaching was just as good," he added. "We were trained by a Scotsman, Ryan Swan, who put us through some excellent coaching sessions. It was a great experience.
"I was hoping to stay over in the States after I finished in college," he added. "I wanted to stay on and do some coaching alongside playing. It was so much hassle trying to sort out visas that I came home that Christmas not knowing whether I'd get to go back
or not. I fell into training with Waterford, who offered me a contract, so it cut out trying to get back to the States.
Jumping back into the Irish game gave him a chance to compare the levels of soccer at home and abroad.
"The guys here in Ireland are technically a lot better than the majority of lads in the States," Higgins reckoned.
"As a lot of people here would know the guys in America are trained like athletes - it's like as if they can jump out of the sky and start to run fast! That's where they might have an advantage over the Irish players, but the Irish lads would be way ahead when it comes to the technical side.
"When it comes to training, the tempo in Ireland is much quicker than the States, but there was something else that stood out," he said. "In Waterford, we had the likes of Seanie Maguire and Gary Dempsey, top class players, and Davy Breen, who has played at a decent level with a number of clubs in the country for the last 15 years. We
had guys who played the game for a long time and had built up a wealth of quality. The college game was for lads between the ages of 18 and 22 - it's practically an under-23 league. Here you're playing against guys of all ages.
"That experience really stands to you," he added. "I wish I had played a year or two here more with Waterford or Kilkenny City (Higgins was a member of the City squad back in 2005, joining the Cats from Tramore) before I went over to the States.
"The past year I have learned so much from those older players in Waterford, guys like Dempsey and Breen. It's a pity I didn't get a year or two extra here before going to America, as that would have stood to me. However, it's been really enjoyable so far."
Most of his time in the RSC has been a good experience. However, losing the two-legged promotion/relegation play-off against Dundalk was a different matter.
"It was a pity to end the season like we did," he said. "Losing to a Dundalk team who had won only a small number of games across the regular season hurt.
"We were the better team in the playoff," was his firm belief. "Even after the first leg, a game we drew 2-2, the mood in the dressing-room was like as if we had been beaten 4-0. It was dead, because we knew we had missed out on a massive chance to go into the second leg with a lead. We had been 2-1 up that night in Oriel Park, but Stephen McDonnell hit a screamer to level the game.
"We had to go into the second leg at the RSC ahead to make them come at us and to get them on the counter-attack. It was a massive disappointment. We had been flying for about three-quarters of the season but Dundalk, who had won just a few games all season, came out on top in what proved to be two cup finals and stayed up.
"It was heartbreaking, but it makes you stronger," he said. "It makes you want to succeed next season."
Waterford have brought a number of last year's squad back for the 2013 season - Higgins was one of several players re-signed in one fell swoop - so the hurt of 2012 could act as a catalyst for the new campaign.
"The majority of us who have signed with the club will have felt what it was like to come so close to getting promotion and have it taken away," he said. "That will definitely help us and hopefully push us towards promotion. We know what it feels like to play well all season and then lose out in those last two games. That experience can
only help us; if it comes down to that promotion/relegation battle again at the end of the season, we'll be much more prepared.
"We had a young enough squad in the two games against Dundalk," he reflected. "Maybe some of the players didn't turn up, maybe the occasion got to us. That will stand to us this year. "
Higgins will now be hoping to put that Norwegian experience to good use when he returns to action with Waterford. He is now back in pre-season training with the club ahead of the new campaign, which begins at home to Finn Harps on Saturday, March 9.
"For now it's back to pre-season, then we play the Munster Senior Cup game against Corinthians of Cork on February 8," he said. "That will be our first official game of the season."
So while the chance to play abroad is not on the horizon for the next season at least, Higgins is glad he took the chance to take on the Oslo challenge.
"The trip to Norway was worthwhile," he said. "I'd definitely recommend it to any League player who is out of contract," he said. "The lads at the PFAI - Ollie Cahill and Stephen McGuinness - were great to deal with, doing everything they could to help
"Getting to know them on a more personal level was great and will a big help again in the future," Higgins added. "Meeting the guys in the PFAI and getting to know players from other teams across the League was good and will be of help in the coming season.
"Overall, it was a brilliant experience," he said. "I'd definitely do it again."