Sunday 30 April 2017

Dublin in safe hands with Cluxton

The Dubs have had just four goalkeepers in nearly 50 years and with his valuable scoring exploits from frees and ‘45s,’ Stephen Cluxton won’t be vacating his net-minding role anytime soon

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

SINCE there's a general perception that all goalkeepers are mad anyway, it won't come as a surprise that one of their breed has introduced a new strain to the mix.

Not content with shot-stopping, taking kick-outs and bringing a beady organisational eye to the Dublin defence, Stephen Cluxton is amusing himself by attempting to out-score as many of his forwards as he possibly can. What's more, he's succeeding.

He has already kicked 0-6 from '45s' and frees in three championship games this year, leaving him joint-third on Dublin's scoring table with Diarmuid Connolly. Only the Brogan brothers, Bernard and Alan are ahead of him.

Whether Cluxton's exalted position so high up the hot-shot parade is a reflection on the shortage of specialist finishers in the Dublin squad is a moot point but, whatever the source, every score is crucial.

Right now, Cluxton's boot is a dangerous weapon for all opposition who concede '45s' or long-range frees. His progression to dead ball specialist yielded 0-5 in last year's championship and, as his strike-rate continued this year, it led to other counties adding their goalkeepers' kicking skills to the attacking armoury.

Mayo's Robert Hennelly and Limerick's Brian Scanlon each scored a point last Sunday and other goalkeepers have tried their luck too, albeit with mixed results.

Meanwhile, Cluxton remains seriously consistent and is now established as a prominent part of Dublin's scoring machine.

It's a valuable addition to the already impressive portfolio he brings to the cause as he continues the remarkable trend of goalkeeping longevity which has been a feature of Dublin football for decades. Now in his 10th season as first choice keeper, Cluxton still has a long way to go to match John O'Leary, but, at the age of 29, time is still very much on his side.

O'Leary lasted 18 seasons (1980-97), having taken over from Paddy Cullen, who held the position from 1967 to 1979. The only relatively short-term incumbent was Davy Byrne who was No 1 for four seasons between the O'Leary and Cluxton reigns.

Cluxton played twice in the 2001 championship, but when Byrne returned from injury, he displaced the Parnells teenager and played out the remainder of the campaign.

However, when Tommy Lyons took over as manager at the end of the year, it quickly emerged that Cluxton would be his first choice, a role he has filled ever since under Paul Caffrey and Pat Gilroy.

It means that Dublin have only had four regular goalkeepers since 1967.

O'Leary, who set a record for all positions by playing in 70 consecutive championship games, said four years ago that Cluxton would extend the sequence to four goalkeepers in 50 years, a prediction which looks highly likely to prove accurate.

That's set to happen in six years' time, at which stage Cluxton would be 35 years old, still a year younger than O'Leary when he finally de-commissioned after a Leinster first round defeat by Meath in 1997

O'Leary has always been a huge fan of Cluxton and readily admits that he considers him a better goalkeeper than he was throughout an outstanding career. Given O'Leary's deserved reputation as one of the best goalkeepers of all time, that's quite a compliment.It was delivered before Cluxton added his point-kicking routine, an added-value factor which his predecessors didn't have.

The domination of the Dublin goal-keeping position by so few over so long isn't exactly encouraging for aspiring contenders, but then it's very comforting for the management and supporters to know that the county continues to produce such outstanding No 1s.

O'Leary was only seven-years-old when Cullen took over as Dublin goalkeeper in 1967, so who would have thought he would be the man to replace him? Now, out there among Dublin clubs, is a young goalkeeper who hopes to become first choice someday, but on the evidence of Cluxton's consistency, he will have a long wait.

Cluxton is already on his way to becoming the highest-scoring goalkeeper in championship history, a bonus which is giving Dublin an added dimension in their push to win the All-Ireland title for the first time since 1995.

Conceding '45s' is now a costly business for the opposition, as Laois discovered in the Leinster first round when Cluxton converted three into points.

He added two more points ('45' and free) against Kildare in a semi-final Dublin won by a point and a '45' against Wexford in the final.

Meanwhile, his shot-stopping standards have remained as high as ever. With the exception of the defensive collapse which left him mercilessly exposed against Meath in last year's Leinster semi-final (the Royals scored five goals), the concession rate has been quite low.

Cluxton has conceded an average of one goal for every 122 minutes of championship action (including extra-time against Wexford last year), which is a very impressive lock-out rate. Now that he has taken to contributing at the other end, it raises the question -- is there anything he can't do?

Surely it can't be long before he is appointed captain.

After all, there's a winning precedent for Dublin having a goalkeeper as captain as O'Leary led to them to All-Ireland glory in 1995 and was generally recognised as being a superb leader over several seasons.

Irish Independent

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