When Ruaidhri Higgins met Damien Duff for the first time, he shoved a pen and paper in his face and asked for his autograph.
It wasn’t fanboy stuff in the last few years, having become managers at similar stages following their time together on Stephen Kenny’s Ireland staff.
Rather, it was a chance meeting as teenagers.
It was 1997 and Higgins had travelled over to Blackburn Rovers from Derry for a trial as he looked to make his way in the game, before eventually joining Coventry City.
That season, Duff, who is five years older, established himself as a Premier League regular at Ewood Park.
This Sunday, the two men go head-to-head in the FAI Cup final as the respective gaffers of Derry City and Shelbourne.
Candystripes boss Higgins said: “I worked with Damien with Ireland, but didn’t know him at all before that.
“I actually got his autograph at 13 when I was on trial at Blackburn Rovers. He obviously didn’t remember when I first met him, but I remember it.
“Blackburn were trying to sign me at the time and I asked to meet Damien. They walked me down the corridor and I had the pen and paper.
“He was only 18 but he was flying at the time. I think they won 5-0 that day at Ewood Park.
“He asked me where I was from and stuff. He probably didn't give a s***e! Just small talk and I got his autograph and off I went.”
With a number of house moves over the years, Higgins has no idea what became of that scrawled signature on the crumpled up piece of paper.
“It’s ironic what life throws up at you because I’m sure we’ll be roaring and shouting at each other on Sunday,” he said.
“But I had been in awe of him as he was the best winger in the world at the 2002 World Cup.
“I’m fully aware he’s one of the all-time greatest players to wear the green jersey. A lot of the attention will be around him this Sunday which is fine and rightly so.
“Not only was he an unbelievable footballer but he’s a really good coach. I saw that first-hand and I’ve maybe nicked a couple of things off him.
“He's an outstanding coach and a good fella and we wish him all the best, but not on Sunday.”
Duff caused controversy when he quit Kenny’s Ireland staff in January 2021, and Higgins followed him out the door four months later.
While Duff didn’t join Shels until this time last year, Higgins left so he could accept the Derry City job after the Candystripes parted with Decan Devine early in the season.
They were bottom of the table at the time, but backed by billionaire owner Philip O’Doherty, Higgins has quickly turned Derry into a force and favourites for Cup glory.
But he is comfortable with that pressure and insists it goes with the territory for an ambitious team and staff.
Full-time jobs are hard to come by in Irish football. It’s a volatile industry at the best of times but Higgins, 38, was always focused on where he wanted to go in his career.
He also knows what it’s like to win an FAI Cup with Derry, having done so as a silky midfielder in 2006 and 2012.
He knows what it’s like to lose one, too, having missed a penalty in the shootout defeat to Bohemians in 2008.
“I probably think about that more than the two that I was involved in winning,’ he said with Sunday’s game looming large.
But whatever the ups and downs of a stellar playing career, Higgins was certain he would stay in football after hanging up his boots.
“There was no doubt,” he said at Aviva Stadium yesterday, the scene of Sunday’s showpiece game. “That's why I retired.
“It was opening up for me and obviously Stephen Kenny got in touch (about a coaching role with Dundalk) and that made my decision for me.
“I lost my drive for playing when I left Dundalk and went to the Irish League and I wanted to get into coaching.
“I made that decision early in my playing career that I wanted to do my coaching badges, like a lot of players are doing now. I'm no different.
“It has probably happened a bit faster than I envisaged but you can't hang around in football. The opportunity came up and I'm delighted I took it.”
Higgins admits Derry are probably ahead of schedule having pushed Shamrock Rovers the closest in the league this season, before focusing on this FAI Cup final.
But he warned: “Contrary to reports, Philip O’Doherty isn't a wealthy businessman for no reason. He doesn't just say yes to everything, believe me.
“We do want to win trophies. We want to compete. It took Cork a while to get after Dundalk, it took Rovers a while to get after Dundalk.
“We know that we’re a work in progress and it doesn't happen overnight, but we're happy with the progress we're making.
“We want to come down here on Sunday and win the Cup, but we know we’re coming up against a really good side.”
Duff has already labelled this final as the biggest game in his career, which is quite the claim considering he won two Premier League titles and 100 international caps.
But where does it rank for Higgins?
“Damien has had a more colourful career than I have had,” he laughed. “So for him to say that then it shows how much it means to him. And I believe him as well.
“I think it’s complete honesty on his behalf. He’s really passionate about Irish football. If it’s the biggest of his then it’s obviously the biggest of mine.”
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