Just two games into his stint with Altrincham FC, Danny Higginbotham went into a 50/50 challenge and, maybe for the first time in his life, chose the 50 that didn’t result in a tangled mess of bodies, almost certain pain and the slight chance of possession for his team. At that point, he knew his first career had come to a close.
After a 20-year playing career that started in Manchester's United academy, filled out with 210 appearances in the Premier League, three caps with Gibraltar's national team and a swansong at his childhood club, Higginbotham swapped the field for the gantries and studios of England as an analyst. Now, he’ll take on the challenge of learning a new league and replacing a legend as the color commentator for the Philadelphia Union. And he says he’s more than ready to head into this one full-on.
The roots of Higginbotham’s second career got stuck in toward the end of his first. An injury kept him sidelined during Stoke City’s FA Cup final run in 2011, and the powers that be thought he might be an insightful addition to any analysis of the team. Something about being on camera clicked. Higginbotham started taking every opportunity possible, even if it meant a lot of travel and not much sleep.
“What I found was that I was starting to enjoy the media side of things more than playing,” he said. “I think what happened there is when I did my cruciate, I think I gave everything that I have left to get back and prove that at 32 or 33 I could come back from that injury. When I came back I'd felt as though I'd just been left behind.
“I got a few media opportunities and it got to a point that when training was finishing, I was going down to talkSPORT in London and then I was coming back and then probably only having about four hours of sleep.”
Can’t wait to get going and looking forward to a great season !!! https://t.co/EfQCnxF2R1— Danny Higginbotham (@Higginbotham05) December 17, 2020
Higginbotham’s intense focus began to shift. When his playing career ended and life in the media became a regularity, he reached out to broadcasters across the sport to find out how he could improve. Plenty obliged, but Martin Tyler took it to another level. If Tyler couldn’t watch one of Higginbotham’s games live, Tyler recorded it to watch later.
As those like Tyler helped Higginbotham get better, more opportunities came – and he was eager to accept every single one. Even if that initially meant that he’d sometimes be working for less than the cost of the travel to get there.
Along the way, he developed an understanding of his role as an analyst and the process behind it all.
Higginbotham marveled at the preparation play-by-play broadcasters put into their work and applied those same principles to his own. He realized that building relationships with managers across the sport is crucial to providing insight. He embraced positivity and an understanding that soccer, at its core, is an entertainment product. And he decided that if he had to offer criticism, it would only be constructive. Anything Higginbotham the broadcaster could say that would have bothered Higginbotham the defender was off the table.
Now, he’s taking those tenets to his wife’s native Philadelphia and aiming to apply them to his new role with the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners. He’s already started building relationships with managers, yet didn’t quite have to work for it. Jim Curtin reached out around Christmastime to say hello.
Although they haven’t met in person yet, Curtin will almost certainly be impressed when they do. The only person who might know more about the Union than Higginbotham is Curtin himself.
“I watched every single Philadelphia Union game last season. I got them sent to me and I wrote up match reports for every single game,” Higginbotham said. “The last thing I wanted was to start working for the Union and for anybody to turn around and go, 'He doesn't know what he’s talking about.' Now I feel comfortable that if anybody wants to talk to me about the Philadelphia Union I can have a conversation. I'm a huge supporter of the team because I know the ins and the outs of the club from over the last year.”
With preparation and knowledge sorted, the only thing left is for Higginbotham to bring the style. After all, he is replacing one of the most distinctive voices in league history, Tommy Smyth.
When Smyth decided to leave the Union, he actually guided Higginbotham to the new job. The pair worked together at SiriusXM, and Smyth put Higginbotham in contact with the right people. There’s a lot of respect there, but Higginbotham said to not expect a carbon copy when he’s on the mic. He’s committed to bringing his own style. Whether that means we’ll still hear the phrase “DOOP’d one in the ol’ onion bag” with any regularity remains to be seen.
As conversations began with Philly, Higginbotham didn’t know what to expect. He followed MLS from afar and recognized the talent coming from the league into Europe, but a closer look surpassed all expectations.
“I went down to the stadium and they showed me around and I was completely gobsmacked. In terms of professionalism, the attention to detail, how they do things, what they want to do, it was obviously brilliant,” he said.
“You look at Philadelphia Union and as a club, it's only 10 years old. In terms of soccer, that's infancy. They’re now producing players that are going for millions of dollars. And that for me is unbelievable. I visited the academy side of things the other day and I was absolutely blown away by the way they do things in terms of producing players.”
Higginbotham and his family have settled in Philadelphia. On top of his work covering the Premier League and UEFA Champions League, he’s ready to help grow MLS and soccer as a whole in America.
“If I can be part of the group that helps the sport grow over here, then I don't think you can get much more satisfaction than that,” Higginbotham said. “I've moved over here and I look at this sport and think 'Can I be part of this huge group that grows football in America?' And that's my aim when I look at it.”