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Sean Higgins: That night in Eskisehir and the buzz of playing European football

Daily Record logoDaily Record 21/07/2021 Matthew Gallagher

He will always cherish that roasting hot night in the Turkish city of Eskisehir.

The team camaraderie, the atmosphere and simply the chance to test himself in European competition. It was special and even now brings a smile to the face of Sean Higgins.

He will never forget St Johnstone’s Europa League away qualifier against Eskisehirspor in 2012.

And he knows exactly how much of a buzz will be running through the current squad after they were handed a dream tie in the competition next month.

As surreal as it sounds, Saints will be playing either Galatasaray or PSV Eindhoven in the third qualifying round on August 5 and 12.

“It’s amazing and gives them more incentive to perform before the game comes around,” said former striker Higgins.

“I’m still friendly with a few boys there. Players like Liam Craig can pass on his experience to make sure they relish and enjoy every minute of it. These games don’t come around very often, especially against teams like PSV and Galatasaray.

“I remember we were training at Stirling University for our draw. It was in between double sessions. The boys were on Google. We knew it was a Turkish team but we were trying to look at their players.”

Higgins had arrived at Saints the year prior after an impressive campaign at Dundee but admits his first season in Perth was a write-off.

“I arrived from Dundee just after a knee op,” Higgins recalls. “I tried to do too much in pre-season and kept breaking down.

“I got off to a slow start. But I made my debut at Parkhead and we managed to win 1-0 with Cuptie (Dave Mackay) scoring.

“I played a few other games but it was injury after injury, to be honest. It was just a nightmare season personally. I’d gone on loan to Ayr to get games but broke my metatarsal within five minutes. My season was finished.

“But it was great to see how successful the club was and to qualify for Europe. The boys had been brilliant and had worked so hard.”

Watching from the stands was tough but, as the summer of 2012 approached, Higgins was determined to get his McDiarmid Park career back on track. He then travelled with Saints to take on Eskisehirspor.

“Steve Lomas was great with me and said he had heard good things and that I’d been unlucky,” Higgins explained.

“I came back in good shape and had a good pre-season. Football was my life so I was looking forward to getting back to something I love - not sitting watching it. Thankfully Steve gave me the nod over in Eskişehir.

“We arrived via a police escort which is something I had never experienced before. You think: ‘This is the real deal here’. We went on a walk mid-morning but it was roasting so we had to be careful. You didn’t want to dehydrate.

“It was just around where the hotel was so I wouldn’t say we were sightseeing. But it looked a nice place.”

Saints entered the match as underdogs and, while a terrific bond was struck between both sets of supporters, Higgins knew the atmosphere on the night would still be a hostile one.

“We walked on the pitch an hour-and-a-half before the game and the home stand was full,” Higgins remembers.

“They were booing right away. Some relish that and I couldn’t wait to get started. Lomas went up and clapped them before the game and I think that is a reason why the relationship between the clubs is so good.”

Deployed up top on his own, Higgins realised he would be in for a tough evening. He gave his all but Saints went down 2-0 before following it up with a 1-1 McDiarmid Park draw the following week.

“I just tried to get us up the park, hold the ball and run the channels,” Higgins told the PA this week.

“I was playing against a centre-half who was double the size of me, height and width wise. I was trying to back in but the referee was giving fouls against me.

“I was saying: ‘Ref, what are you doing?’ But he said: ‘One more and you are off’. In Scotland I wouldn’t even have got a warning. We didn’t have many opportunities but the two goals we lost were sore ones.

“But the experience out there, albeit we got beat, was one I will never forget.”

Going into battle that night with Higgins was current Perth manager Callum Davidson. His first season in charge was the stuff of dreams to set-up this next voyage into Europe.

“I’m delighted for Callum,” Higgins said. “What a season he had.

“There was something in Callum very early where you could tell he was going to be a good coach. He is an all-round great guy and loves football. He was willing to help players, especially when I was injured.

“It was a great season and, for me, he was manager of the year. In my opinion he should’ve got it. He now has to follow it up somehow, which will be the big challenge. But he will relish that.”

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