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Michael Higdon at Motherwell: How striker became Steelmen’s Mr Big

The outsize English striker took the SPL by storm 10 years ago, scoring 26 goals and outdoing the Old Firm in the individual awards.

This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

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Every away game for Higgy there was a bottle of red and a wee plastic cup in his toilet bag for the journey back. It might be more protein shakes and recovery bars nowadays, though he was clinging on to that generation of footballer – his recovery was a bottle of Rioja in a white plastic cup.
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For a player at Motherwell or any other provincial club to go and win Player of the Year, you really need to go and perform. Normally the awards are about who has performed best for either one of the Old Firm, so for Michael to go and beat that showed he went above and beyond that season.

In a season beyond his wildest dreams, Motherwell striker Michael Higdon made history in landing both the Players’ Player of the Year and the Golden Boot during the 2012/13 campaign.

The big Englishman ended 23 years of dominance by Old Firm players to achieve the status of being regarded as the best player in the country – the first since time Aberdeen’s Jim Bett scooped the award in 1990 that a Celtic or Rangers player did not pick up the prize.

Higdon also became the last winner of the Scottish Premier League’s Golden Boot award by finding the net 26 times in 37 appearances as the Steelmen clinched second place in the table.

After he arrived at the club from St Mirren one season earlier, Motherwell fans could have been forgiven for being sceptical about the signing of a forward who had acquired a reputation for being an old school striker with a somewhat unremarkable goal record.

‘Well gaffer Stuart McCall was seeking a replacement for John Sutton, who had departed for Hearts that summer, and he admits that he saw Higdon as someone with the pedigree to fill the void left by the striker who had scored 17 goals in the previous season.

“I’ve got to be honest, we were looking to keep John Sutton who was a popular figure in the dressing room and obviously a good type who got a good amount of goals for us,” McCall says. “We had been fairly successful with a tall aggressive striker which John was, although he was probably a bit more mobile than Higgy.

“I knew Michael from his youth days in England and knew what he’d been capable of there, then we got to see him up close at St Mirren. When we found out he was leaving there, I thought he was someone who could play up top and if we could get someone around him like a Jamie Murphy then it could work – he fitted the profile and most importantly the wage bracket we were looking for as well.

“I remember it took him about six games to get off the mark. You always seem to have one that is a bit of a boo boy target and he wasn’t given much of a chance to settle in really. He certainly didn’t hit the ground running but we knew what he was capable of as we were working with him every day and we had great faith in him. Early on, I had to come out to defend him in the media. As you usually find, the minority are the loudest and that was the case.

Michael Higdon: Not the boo boy for long

“People would call him a big lump. Technically, for a big and physical player he was excellent, there is no doubt about that and he was a brilliant finisher too. He didn’t have the greatest mobility, though when he got in his stride he wasn’t so slow. He was a stalky, heavy guy, but his touch for such a big lad was exceptional.”

Higdon would silence the doubters during his first season with Motherwell by netting 16 times and grabbing the crucial winner in their penultimate game of the season at Tynecastle to clinch third spot and, remarkably, a berth in the qualifying stages of the Champions League the following season.

It would take until the seventh game of his second campaign to get on the scoresheet but from there he rarely looked back, going on to score seven goals in four matches – including a hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Inverness.

Keith Lasley made almost 500 appearances for Motherwell and captained the club during Higdon’s historic season. Now chief operating officer at St Mirren, Lasley looks back on those years with great fondness, though also admits there were certain unconventional habits that seemed to work wonders for his former teammate.

“Higgy’s presence at the club coincided with my own most enjoyable time at the club and probably playing-wise my own personal best time too,” Lasley says. “We didn’t have the biggest squad, but what we lacked in numbers we had in character and Michael was certainly at the top of that list in terms of characters.

“Every away game for Higgy there was a bottle of red and a wee plastic cup in his toilet bag for the journey back. It might be more protein shakes and recovery bars nowadays, though he was clinging on to that generation of footballer – his recovery was a bottle of Rioja in a white plastic cup.

“That was him, he loved his football and then would love a glass of wine or a couple of pints with his family or his teammates after a game – that’s how he worked and it certainly worked for us that season.

“From memory he lived in the Stirling area, he wasn’t local to the stadium. He wasn’t one for being out and about in the Mega Bar or the Hamilton Palace, put it that way. He kept himself to himself when he wasn’t around the stadium or about the club and family was huge for him.

“Away from the park he was quite unassuming but when he was in the dressing room he was a big character in every sense of the word. He was a big guy, some would maybe say too big – he perhaps could have worked on that and I’m sure plenty of managers did.

“In terms of his frame, let’s just say he wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo when he took his top off but what he did do was get the best from that frame and he caused absolute havoc. From speaking to many a centre half over the years, he wasn’t a pleasure to play against at times.

“I have nothing but fond memories of that time and nothing but fond memories about Michael himself. He was a great teammate, a great guy to play with and a great guy in the dressing room – thinking back to those days will always put a smile on my face.”

Despite perceptions that Higdon was a throwback to an old-school, robust centre forward, he would regularly come up with goals that completely debunked those theories.

BBC Scotland journalist and Motherwell fan Scott Mullen recalls being shocked by his fantastic technique and ability to find the net from all over the pitch – with one goal in particular standing out.

“One of the goals that sticks in my mind came against Dundee United at Tannadice. He crashed a volley into the net from about 35 yards – that was a goal completely from nothing,” he says. “We got him at the prime of his life and he will always be considered as a Motherwell goalscoring hero.

“Higgy on the face of it wasn’t a very stylish footballer in the sense that he was quite a traditional big centre forward, but he had great skill, great touch and just had an instinct about him that whenever he was in the mood it worked brilliantly. It helped the satisfaction and enjoyment of it as a fan that you had a guy who, let’s be honest, just looked like one of us playing up front.”

As the season approached its business end, McCall’s Motherwell side put together a sensational run of form that would see them clinch second spot in emphatic style. One of the catalysts for their success was Higdon scoring nine goals in nine games. During that spell, ‘Well defeated Neil Lennon’s rampant Celtic twice, with the big striker grabbing the headlines on both occasions. He netted the winner as the Hoops were defeated 2-1 at Fir Park in late February, though he had a point to prove when the teams met again two months later.

Following the omission of any Celtic players from the Players’ Player of the Year shortlist, Lennon described the absence of his players as “abysmal” and added that none of the four nominees would get a game in his Celtic side. This added fuel to the fire ahead of the clash in North Lanarkshire and it would be Higdon who got the last laugh, sending a penalty into the top corner to clinch a 3-1 win. Afterwards, he celebrated with a water off a duck’s back gesture and he would explain post-match that the words from the Celtic boss had spurred his teammates on.

“I always remember a penalty against Celtic and I recall standing behind the penalty, it went right into the top corner – his technique in big pressure moments was flawless,” Lasley adds. “He had a character that could handle that and he could handle criticism. When he first came to the club, he missed a couple of chances and at home there were a few grumbles and groans at times – but that never fazed him.

“For a player at Motherwell or any other provincial club to go and win Player of the Year, you really need to go and perform. Normally the awards are about who has performed best for either one of the Old Firm, so for Michael to go and beat that showed he went above and beyond that season.”

Higdon had spent the full season making headlines for all the right reasons, though that was to change in the aftermath of the Player of the Year event at the Hilton Hotel in Glasgow in which he cemented his status in Scottish football folklore.

Just hours after being named Players’ Player of the Year, the striker was involved in an incident outside the Corinthian Nightclub and subsequently spent the remainder of his evening in police custody.

McCall jokes that he was relieved that he left the striker two minutes before his arrest, while Lasley recalls a day where the camaraderie of the squad was on full display.

“That was an interesting night shall we say. Well I say night. It started at lunchtime which I think might have been part of the problem,” he laughs. “At the time the thought was Leigh Griffiths was the shoo-in, that is maybe why we went out at lunchtime. We didn’t actually expect that Higgy was going to win.

“When his name was announced in the hall, we were all as pleased for him as he was for himself. He had a couple of family up for the awards, again a measure of the family man that he is. To say a couple of tables got turned upside down when his name got read out is probably a bit of an understatement.

“Things then happened afterwards and I always remember waking up at half eight the next morning to about 25 missed calls from Sky Sports. I might have been doing OK myself that year, but I’m not sure Sky Sports wanted to speak to me about me – so I knew something had maybe gone down.

“It was Stevie Hammell’s testimonial golf day the day after, my journey there was filled with calls to the club and to Sky Sports, being filled in on what had happened because I wasn’t present or a witness to whatever had gone on.”

After a record-breaking season, Motherwell were desperate to retain the services of their star striker who had reached the end of his two-year-deal with the club. Eventually, Higdon would opt for a move to the Netherlands to join NEC Nijmegen where he went on to score 14 goals in 28 league appearances in one season abroad.

It was a rather familiar tale for McCall who confesses he had grown accustomed to losing his prize assets during his almost four-year stint in the managerial hotseat at ‘Well.

After his time in Holland, Michael joined Sheffield United before having spells with Oldham Athletic, Tranmere Rovers and Bangor City – a low-key conclusion to a career that peaked at Fir Park.

Time ‘Well spent

“He got what he deserved in the end, he was a joy to work with,” McCall adds. “It was a shame we couldn’t keep him longer, though as much as I would have liked to have, I think he trebled his wages going to Holland.

“I remember meeting him a couple of years afterwards when I was invited back to a Sheffield United reunion. All the Sheffield United players were there and I met Higgy and his missus. She came up to me and thanked me personally for bringing him to Motherwell and said she’d never seen him happier at a football club.

“I look back at Higgy and think it would have been great if he could have stayed another season or two at Motherwell and it might have benefited him but he ends up going abroad, making some money and then comingback to a good club in Sheffield United.

After ending his playing career at the age of 33, Higdon has returned to living a life away from the scrutiny and spotlight that comes with being a professional footballer. A decade after his departure, he still holds cult hero status among ‘Well fans. Remarkably, Motherwell and NEC supporters regularly attend each other’s matches in a bond created by a shared love for the talismanic forward.

“The fact that Motherwell fans and Nijmegen fans still have that link 10 years after he left says a lot about the man and the mark that he left on both places,” Mullen says. “I think you have some players who just resonate with supporters. He gave us some wonderful memories.”

This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

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