Cluxton putting his best foot forward
Dublin’s netminder sets the standard in how art of the kick-out has evolved
As an illustration of how the kick-out in gaelic football has undergone major transformation over the last decade, a look back at last year's All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Dublin is the best starting point.
On the day, perhaps the two best exponents of 'placing' kick-outs in the game, Stephen Cluxton and Alan Quirke, had the remote controls to restart the action.
If ever evidence was required to note the changing trends in the placement of kick-outs and the dynamics that exist between the goalkeeper and his outfield players, our graphics (see page opposite) paint the picture much more than words can.
Cluxton is arguably the foremost 'keeper of his era. Some may contest his collection of three All Star awards. But for shot-stopping, all-round security and particularly kick-outs, Cluxton is entitled to stand above the rest.
He has revolutionised the kick-out in much the same way as Cork's Billy Morgan did in the early 1970s.
Up to then the requirements for goalkeeping were different. The best shot-stopper wouldn't make it unless he had bravery in spades. Similarly 'keepers that could kick a ball off the ground with a bit of ferocity could be overlooked if they couldn't stand the heat in the kitchen.
So, the kick-out duties normally fell to a full-back or corner-back. Enda Colleran performed the role for Johnny Geraghty during Galway's coveted three-in-a-row, Leo Murphy did it for Down and Kerry's Donie O'Sullivan was regarded as one of the most forceful kickers off the ground of his era.
Morgan changed the approach. "He was the first 'keeper to put any real thought in what he did with a kick-out. He was the first 'keeper, to my mind, that took them on a consistent basis.
"You could see why he would adapt to coaching so easily," recalls Matt Kerrigan, an All-Ireland winner with Meath in 1967.
Cluxton has become a trend-setter in much the same way. His accuracy from the restart has become a feature of Dublin's play over the last decade.
It wasn't the sum total of Shane Ryan's contribution in 2008 when he won his All Star, but the understanding reached between them allowed Ryan, not the tallest of midfielders, to get on the end of enough kick-outs to make a sustained impact that season.
Cluxton has had the capacity to float kick-outs with the perfect pace and trajectory in that trademark style -- taking just two or three steps and then an effortless swing of the left foot.
Always with a ball ready to go by the side of the post, he wastes no time in restarting and moves with such pace that RTE cameras will regularly have to decide between showing replays or tracking the movements of his kicks.
A look at the graph attached illustrates one obvious point -- only one of the 29 kick-outs he took that day landed anywhere close to the middle of the field, that circle with a 20-metre reach on every side.
Almost all were hit within 15 metres of either sideline, forming neat clusters in four distinct areas, on each wing on both sides of the half-way line. Not once did he land a kick-out beyond the half-way line. The unpredictability is in the timing. He can shift sides quicker than most opponents can read it.
Quirke's deliveries didn't follow such a distinct pattern for a few reasons. Dublin got into the habit of not contesting opponents' kick-outs at the latter end of last season, so they could get their defensive alignment right in plenty of time.
That allowed Quirke to pick out Ray Carey, Eoin Cadogan and even Pearse O'Neill on one occasion with short kick-outs inside their own '45'.
But by and large Quirke sought to place the majority of his kick-outs by hitting colleagues making diagonal runs to the sidelines, despite their obvious height advantage over Dublin across the middle.
Cluxton isn't the first 'keeper in the modern era to adopt the strategy of dropping mid-distance kick-outs to the sidelines where colleagues have timed their runs. Martin McNamara did it with some success when Galway won the All-Ireland in 1998. But Cluxton is the first to do it on a consistent basis.
Hence teams have studied him closely, trying to figure out where he will put the ball. Kerry appeared to crack it in advance of the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final and put strong pressure on the Dublin kick-out with obvious success.
The importance of the kick-out cannot be overstated. On average there are 60 in a game and if a team can take even 55pc they have a distinct possession advantage straight away.
It was curious then to see Dublin allow their opponents so many uncontested kick-outs last season, 17 against Tyrone and another nine against Cork.
It allowed them to set up their defensive lines much more quickly, but Mickey Harte is convinced that even though they won the game, that strategy was more help to his own team than to Dublin.
"If somebody gives me the kick-outs, I will take it every day," he says.
Reflecting on that All-Ireland quarter-final last year, Harte feels the benefits were still Tyrone's.
"If they stopped us 40 metres from the goals, you could say it is a bad thing to do that. But they didn't. We still had the scoring chances, so therefore it wasn't anything to do with the fact that we couldn't get through the last line of defence.
"We did get through it or had to kick around it. If they were stopping us and turning us over in their own '45', I'd say you were definitely wrong to be doing that, but I would not change the way we did our kick-outs last year. I'd like to think I would change the shooting.
"I don't think that it is a good idea for those who do it, because I think they can be made pay.
"Not everyone will make them pay, but some teams will. Because, ultimately, I believe that what you want after the kick-out is full possession."
Dublin didn't concede as many kick-outs during the recent league, but took advantage of Mayo's decision not to challenge Cluxton in the first half of their league game in Croke Park.
"Mayo allowed Dublin nearly all of their own kick-outs in the first half, but when they pushed their corner-backs up in the second half it was a different game," says the former Mayo player Martin Carney.
"Mayo predicated that strategy on strengthening their defensive lines, but they still conceded four goals."
Carney feels that since the kick-out has become uniformly taken from the 13-metre line more "tactical nuances" have been introduced.
"Less and less goalkeepers are going for length now and perhaps the requirement of a high fielding midfielder is diminishing all the time," feels Carney.
There is risk attached to trying to place kick-outs, but Dublin and Cork have long since established that those risks are outweighed by the benefits of perfect timing.