Higginbotham happy to play the super Saint in waiting

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The Independent Football

The virtue of patience is something that Danny Higgin-botham knows all about - even though, aged 24, he is now at his third Premiership club. It took patience to wait for his opportunity at Manchester United; it took patience to deal with the implosion of Derby County; and it will take patience to break up one of the country's most formid-able defensive partnerships.

"The worst thing to show is impatience," says Higginbotham of trying to convince Southampton's manager, Gordon Strachan, that he should be selected ahead of Claus Lundekvam or Michael Svensson - both highly consistent internationals. It was ever thus for the young Mancunian.

Today, as a reminder, his home-town club visit St Mary's and he will probably be on the bench. Higginbotham will come face to face with the players, internationals all, of whom he was "in awe" when, as an apprentice, he was first told to train with them. His boot-cleaning duties included Brian McClair's - though he would also have happily scrubbed those of Ryan Giggs. "Yeah, I used to try and clean his boots," says Higginbotham. "You see these guys on television and when you are with them as an apprentice it takes a bit of getting used to. But they are just normal people, with the same interests as you."

His Old Trafford debut rates as the highlight of his career so far. "It was a great feeling, unbelievable, to play for my home team," he says. It was so unexpected - in the Champions' League against Sturm Graz in 1999 - that Higginbotham did not have time to arrange tickets for his parents. The reviews were good, very good, and soon he was being touted as successor to Denis Irwin and a future England full-back. But the competition was fierce, as a generation of players at United were finding out. Jonathan Greening, Ronnie Wallwork, Mark Wilson, John Curtis, Alex Notman, Philip Mulryne and David Healy... all nearly made it but moved on. The only one still around is Wes Brown.

Higginbotham also left the club he joined as a nine-year-old and whom he still wants to win the League "every season". After a year's loan to Royal Antwerp - which ended in controversy and a lengthy ban following a fracas with a referee - he returned to be informed that Sir Alex Ferguson had accepted an offer of £2m from Derby. Big money.

"I had come back and played a few games. My idea was to give it everything for that season and, if things were not going according to plan, go and see the manager. But that decision was taken for me," Higginbotham explains. "It was hard in a way, because ever since I was a boy I had dreamed of playing for them, and I did do it a few times. The manager said that I didn't have to go if I didn't want to - but, for me, if a manager tells you he is willing to let you go then you are not in his plans."

Derby was a shock to the system. At United he was used to attacking, being on the front foot. At Derby it was in reverse. "I was a bit naïve and I thought it was going to be easier than it was," Higgin-botham admits of the start of his two-and-a-half years at Pride Park. "But I learnt a lot and it made me stronger."

So strong that, despite relegation - "the lowest point of my career, horrible" - he was named Derby's Player of the Year. Soon other clubs came calling, but it was Southampton who impressed with a £1.5m offer last January.

"If you look back three years ago, Derby and South-ampton were neck-and-neck," Higginbotham says. "Now you look at the two and Derby, who I have got a lot of feelings for, are struggling and Southampton have gone the other way."

So much so that Higginbotham, now firmly intent on being a centre-back, realises that he has a hard fight to gain a place. "Southampton are a top-eight club, so you are not going to walk straight into the team," he says. The squad was strengthened further in the summer with the arrival of Kevin Phillips, Neil McCann and Graeme Le Saux. Pre-season was fierce, but Higginbotham did not have to wait long for first-team involvement. He came on in the first League match, at Leicester City, after an early injury to Lundekvam. "I thought I did well," Higginbotham says, and reports confirm this.

In the same breath, however, he adds: "But it is just a case of being patient, biding my time and waiting for that chance."