Mark Higgins story ranks amongst the saddest in Everton’s history and serves as a poignant reminder that football can deal the cruellest and most unexpected hands.
Born in Buxton, the tall centre back came from footballing stock. His father, John Higgins, served a distinguished career for Bolton Wanderers in the 1950s, twice reaching the FA Cup Final, and was part of the team that defeated the post-Munich Manchester United team in the 1958 final.
Higgins junior worked his way through the Everton youth teams, making his debut just past his eighteenth birthday, in October 1976. His breakthrough came at the start of the 1977/78 campaign, when he was called to deputise for the injured Roger Kenyon through the first half of the season. Fast, composed and formidable in the air, seldom did he look out of place in a team chasing for the title. Although Kenyon reclaimed his place midseason, the teenager’s progress had not gone unnoticed.
Yet there would be no meteoric rise. Over the next three years he played just 41 games, slipping behind his fellow young defender, Billy Wright, in the ranking, but when called upon to deputise showing all the composure and maturity that had first marked him out as a player to watch out for. His chance finally came during the 1981/82 season. Now managed by Howard Kendall, the new boss dropped his summer signing, Mick Walsh, and Higgins took the number four shirt, and made it his own. When Kendall subsequently lost faith in Mick Lyons, he made Higgins, still aged only 23, captain.
For the first time in his Everton career, Higgins was one of the first names on the team sheet each week. Through the 1982/83 season and the first half of the following term he enjoyed the best football of his career until disaster struck. What was originally suspected to be a mere groin strain was diagnosed as a serious pelvic injury that specialists claimed would bring an end to his career. As his team-mates were lifting a glut of trophies, their former captain was forced to contemplate retirement while still only in his mid-twenties.
Yet there was no giving up, and Higgins made a brief return with Ron Atkinson's Manchester United. He then played a further 120 games in the lower leagues with Bury, where he was reunited with Martin Dobson, now manager, and Stoke City, then managed by Alan Ball – making Higgins perhaps the only player to be coached or managed by each of the Harvey, Kendall, Ball ‘Holy Trinity’.
After finally retiring in 1990, he returned to Derbyshire to take up a role with the bakery his family have run for generations.