Star of 80s/90s was brilliant in era of great forwards
Martin Breheny on JOHN O'LEARY
IT was different in John O'Leary's day. Called into the Dublin squad the day before the 1980 Leinster final against Offaly for what he assumed would be a sub's role, he got a surprise in the dressing-room 30 minutes before the game when Kevin Heffernan walked over, handed him the No 1 jersey and said: "You're in today, John."
O'Leary, who a few days earlier had expected to be watching the game from Hill 16, was about to make his senior debut. 'Heffo' kept instructions for his 19-year-old rookie goalkeeper to a minimum.
"Stop the shots, drive your kick-outs as far as you can and keep talking to the backs," he said.
Dublin lost by two points, but O'Leary played well enough to suggest he was in for the long haul.
"On this display, O'Leary is a right good one," wrote Donal Carroll in his Irish Independent report for the following day. Indeed.
A career that lasted for 17 years, during which O'Leary played in a record 70 successive championship games, had been launched. It yielded two All-Ireland, eight Leinster and three National League medals, as well as five All Star awards.
Arguing the case for O'Leary ahead of Stephen Cluxton comes with one distinct disadvantage. Cluxton's exploits are ongoing, whereas the memory rewind button has to be pressed to recall O'Leary's excellence. However, once that's done it reveals that he was an exceptional talent, taking consistency levels to new heights.
O'Leary may have a higher average goal concession rate than Cluxton but that has to be put in the context of an era when more goals were scored than nowadays.
Cluxton's arrival as first-choice 'keeper in succession to Davy Byrne coincided with the emergence of tighter security systems.
There's no disputing Cluxton's shot-stopping ability but, in general, he has had less to deal with than O'Leary did.
Goalkeepers everywhere were busier back then for two reasons. One, defences were not as tightly packed and two, forwards tended to be more adventurous.
Dublin and Mayo have unpicked most of the locks they encountered in this year's championship but whether that's a one-off seasonal phenomenon or something more significant remains to be seen.
The reality is that over the last decade, there have been dozens of games where goalkeepers have had very few saves to make. That rarely happened in O'Leary's time, which is why his high standards made him possibly the best 'keeper in Gaelic football history.
Critics will point to the 1990 Leinster final when he presented Colm O'Rourke with a goal in the first minute after allowing a high ball to pop out of his grasp as a negative, but it was just one blip amidst hundreds of brilliant saves over the years. Besides, Cluxton wasn't foot perfect against Kerry in the recent semi-final.
I would contend that O'Leary's save from Wicklow's Pat O'Byrne in the closing minutes of a Leinster first-round tie in Newbridge in 1981 was as good as any block ever made in Gaelic football.
Dublin were defending a two-point lead near the end when O'Byrne fired a powerful drive through a forest of legs, only for O'Leary to dive to his left and touch the ball on to the post before collecting the rebound. Pure class.
O'Leary's arrival on the scene coincided with the start of a glory spell for Offaly in Leinster. He was facing Matt Connor, one of the best-ever attackers, on a regular basis, and when Dublin later moved on to All-Ireland level, they came up against the greatest forward line of all time in Kerry's super-snipers.
That was followed by a period of Meath dominance in Leinster when the best team ever produced by the Royals featured a full-forward line of Colm O'Rourke, Brian Stafford and Bernard Flynn to test the Dublin defence and their goalkeeper.
Mattie McCabe was also a smart poacher, scoring three goals against O'Leary, who clashed with Meath in 17 championship games. McCabe's return was the highest by any forward against O'Leary.
Cluxton hasn't had to contend with anything nearly as good in Leinster over the last decade as Meath were in O'Leary's time.
As for Cluxton's accuracy from frees, it's an added bonus but came about because of the failure of Dublin's outfield players to take command of place-kicking duties in the manner that Barney Rock, Charlie Redmond, Jack Sheedy and Keith Barr did during O'Leary's time. It left O'Leary to concentrate on standard goalkeeping duties, which he mastered expertly.
Greatest netminder of modern times has brought exciting new dimension to the position
Colm Keyes on STEPHEN CLUXTON
Some 46 minutes into last month's All-Ireland semi-final, Tomás Ó Sé surged forward and eventually linked with Darran O'Sullivan in the corner of the field where the Hogan and Davin Stands meet.
O'Sullivan bobbed and weaved his way into a scoring position, but his fisted effort drifted wide at the far post.
Just 12 seconds later, the kick-out was falling kindly into the unmarked Diarmuid Connolly's hands inside Kerry's half. He hardly had to break stride to gather it.
The move should have come to much more than it did as Connolly neglected Dean Rock to his right, putting a more congested Bernard Brogan away to his left. The shot was weak into Brendan Kealy's hands.
The point of recalling this passage of play is to dwell on its genesis. In a mere 12 seconds Stephen Cluxton retrieved the ball, ran out to place it on a tee, weighed up his options, took a few steps back and then drove it more than 60 metres into the arms of a colleague.
Looks simple. But so too does balancing on a high wire when you have perfected it.
It underlined the values Cluxton brings to the restart – speed, quick assessment, quicker execution, accuracy. By going so long and with such precision and speed of thought, he had turned defence into attack in an instant with the vision of a quarter-back surveying everything in front of him.
The advantage he has given Dublin from kick-outs is well documented. The greatest tribute to him is the stock placed on pressurising his kick-out by most opponents these days. 'Get to Cluxton, get to Dublin' is the mantra. No other goalkeeper has attracted such attention.
Generally, a Division 1 team will retain possession from just under 60pc of their own kick-outs, according to GAA performance analyst Rob Carroll, but Cluxton regularly goes beyond that even when opponents push up.
Cluxton brings so much more to his team than just sound shot- stopping and good housekeeping.
But even the way he carries out those basic requirements of goalkeeping alone elevates him to the top of his craft, before you add in the dimension that has revolutionised the position over the last decade.
From 65 championship games with Dublin he has kept 39 clean sheets and conceded just 37 goals – phenomenal statistics that even surpass John O'Leary's magnificent record over a 70-match span.
Five of those 37 goals came on the one afternoon against Meath in the 2010 and even then it's impossible to apportion blame to Cluxton, given the quality of the finishes and the naivety of the Dublin defending.
Indeed, apart from his concession of the penalty against Kerry the last day (did Donnchadh Walsh jump into him before Cluxton dragged the Kerry forward down?), it's hard to recall him being the chief culprit in any of the other 32.
His handling is flawless and, for a player who stands just short of 6ft his ability in the air against bigger opponents is another strong point.
So, too is his nerve. This writer recalls a Saturday night in early 2011 in Armagh's Athletic Grounds for Dublin's opening league match when he made a magnificent late save from Steven McDonnell.
McDonnell had the patience to wait and try to draw Cluxton. Cluxton held his ground. That capacity to know when to 'go' is perhaps his greatest asset.
The modesty of the man should preclude us from submitting O'Leary's comments on Cluxton to this newspaper in 2007, but such an honest appraisal nonetheless deserves an airing.
"He's technically brilliant at shot-stopping. His reads the angles to the point of precision, has marvellous reflexes and is as brave as they come," said O'Leary when talking about the great lineage of Dublin goalkeepers, which stretches back some 47 years.
The coup de grace for Cluxton is of course his long-distance free-taking and conversion of '45s.'
He wasn't the pioneer, but he has become the standard bearer for it because of his amazing success rate, with 0-40 garnered in four championship seasons from a distance of 40 metres and beyond.
Many other goalkeepers have tried it. Some have succeeded to a degree, but nobody has taken it further than he has – the kick to win the 2011 All-Ireland final is testament to that.
If it came down to the primary duty of shot-stopping and control of his area, the case for Cluxton would be strong anyway – but when you throw in the other dimensions, it takes him beyond every other goalkeeper in modern times.
Have your say in our poll