Clarke takes big chance to become top stopper
Cluxton the early All-Star fancy but he has fallen behind Mayo's comeback king
Stephen Cluxton heads into Saturday's All-Ireland final replay against a background he has never previously experienced in his 15-year career as Dublin goalkeeper.
Surprisingly, opposition No 1s rated higher than him in four of his six SFC games this season, a sequence that has sent the odds on him winning a sixth All-Star award soaring to 9/1.
Few would have predicted such a scenario when Cluxton led the goalkeeping contenders after Dublin clinched a fourth successive Allianz League title in April, but then nobody would have anticipated either that by late September David Clarke would be odds-on favourite for the All-Star gong.
Clarke's name wasn't even included on extended contender lists at the start of the championship as he was No 2 to Robert Hennelly in Mayo's pecking order. That changed after the Connacht semi-final defeat by Galway when, despite conceding only one goal, Hennelly was demoted as Stephen Rochford re-structured his forces for the second coming.
Three months later, Clarke is 2/5 favourite (Tipperary's Evan Comerford is next in line at 2/1) to win his first All-Star award, having built his case with a series of top-quality performances, topped by a fine display against Dublin last Sunday week.
Cluxton had a good day too, but didn't rank as highly as Clarke, who made at least three excellent saves.
Earlier in the season, Brian Kelly (Kerry), Mark Anthony McGinley (Donegal) and Graham Brody (Laois) also got higher marks than Cluxton in the Irish Independent ratings. Paddy O'Rourke (Meath) was even with him in the Leinster semi-final while the Dublin captain had the edge on Darren Quinn (Westmeath) in the final.
Cluxton's influence on the advance of strategic kick-outs has been immense, but with every team now attaching detailed attention to the re-starts, the accuracy of the deliveries by all goalkeepers has improved substantially. Cluxton is still among the best when he gets it right, but his error rate has increased. It was especially noticeable in the semi-final when a sloppy kick-out gifted Kerry a goal before another kick-out was boomed over the sideline.
It has become increasingly difficult for Cluxton to find his targets as the opposition devote a considerable amount of time to planning for his kick-outs.
But then, Dublin are equally detailed at the other end so Cluxton's opposite numbers also have also had to react to the ever-advancing demands on goalkeepers.
Also, Cluxton no longer looks as assured under the high ball as he used to be, which encourages opposition to launch aerial assaults, one of which yielded a goal for Kerry in the semi-final.
Meanwhile, Clarke has been especially effective since earning a recall for Mayo's the opening qualifier clash with Fermanagh. It marked his return as No 1 choice after injury had intervened against Donegal in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final - a loss that may have had a major impact on Mayo's prospects later on.
He was replaced at half-time by Hennelly, who remained in goal for the two semi-final clashes with Dublin and for most of this year's Allianz League.
Injury had also disrupted Clarke on other occasions over the years, leaving him with a relatively low 32 championship appearances in a senior career that was launched in 2005.
John Healy, Kenneth O'Malley and Hennelly also had stints in goal in the intervening period. And when Hennelly, who at 26 is six years younger than Clarke, started this year's championship as No 1 choice, it didn't look promising for the Ballina man.
However, as he explained before the Galway game, he battled on, hoping a chance would come.
"I am coming up on 33 now and whether it's one minute or 70 minutes (action), I'll take it," he said.
He saw no action against Galway, but has since played in all six of Mayo's six games, during which they have conceded just four goals.
Two were scored by Clarke's colleagues, Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle, against Dublin in a double outbreak of bad luck never previously seen in an All-Ireland final.
Clarke was first introduced to the Mayo senior panel by Pat Holmes as an 18-year-old in 2001, but didn't make his senior championship debut until 2005 when John Maughan was in charge.
"There was always something about David - a really reliable guy. He was unfortunate with injuries over the years but he always kept going.
"It's not easy for a goalkeeper when a younger rival is getting in ahead of him, but the good ones stick at it. That's what David did and now he's back as No 1 and doing very well," said Maughan.
Clarke, who captained Mayo in 2012 when their All-Ireland run took them all the way to the final against Donegal, brings a real sense of presence to the goal area, a quality which has played a big part in their transformation since mid-June.
"He's a big man and uses his physique to good effect. On top of that, he's a cool operator. He has been around the scene for a very long time so nothing fazes him. He has definitely shown since he came back this year that he's very much at the top of his game," said Maughan.
Clarke had a few kick-out blips late on against Dublin, including one which gifted Diarmuid Connolly a point but his overall efficiency has been an influential factor in steering Mayo on their latest attempt to end the All-Ireland drought.