Sunday 15 December 2019

Cluxton's shoes are becoming bigger to fill

Dublin's greatest strength may turn into their greatest weakness

The absence of goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton may hinder Dublin’s hopes of reaching the Allianz NFL semi-finals Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE
The absence of goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton may hinder Dublin’s hopes of reaching the Allianz NFL semi-finals Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

On the Saturday morning after Dublin's 2011 All-Ireland triumph one of the first players to roll into an International Rules training session in Drumcondra was the hero of the previous Sunday afternoon a few hundred yards further down the road in Croke Park.

Stephen Cluxton's winning kick had electrified a stadium and sent a city into a spin for the week. The previous night those celebrations were still in full flow as the squad began their night with an appearance on the 'Late Late Show'.

So when Cluxton arrived at the grounds at around 9.30am the following morning, it took the international rules management by some surprise.

He hadn't always warmed to International Rules business, especially when the series went to Australia, but this time he was committed. And when he's committed to something he's clearly committed, as underlined by his remarkable record of service since he established himself as Dublin's No 1 choice in 2002 (he made his championship debut in 2001 when Davy Byrne was unavailable).

Goalkeepers don't endure the same exertions as their outfield counterparts so the need for rest is not as pressing.

But in his 13 years he has never missed more than two games back-to-back for Dublin.

It's not unique or unprecedented for Dublin to line out without Cluxton but sometimes it does take a leap of imagination to envisage just what they would be like without their most influential player of the modern era.

In Omagh on Sunday, Dublin will experience a 'pressure' game without their trusted custodian for the first time in almost a decade.

True, his name has been excluded from 12 team sheets for the 72 league games since the 2004 Leinster quarter-final against Westmeath, which was the last time they played a game that really mattered without him.

Successive managers have sought to keep his understudies sweet with fleeting league appearances from time to time.

But none of these games carried the same importance as a trip to Tyrone to decide who takes the last available league semi-final place, on the basis that Mayo will beat an already qualified Derry. In that context, it is effectively a league quarter-final.

But such has been Cluxton's record of service, his avoidance of serious injury and his unyielding nerve and competence in the position that there has been little cultivation of an understudy and equipping him with the type of experience required for the games that Dublin play.

"He's never been injured, he has never wanted to take a break and he has never needed a period of time to rehab for anything," said former manager Paul Caffrey. "It's been uncanny how he has managed it."

Consequently giving potential challengers more exposure to road-test their ability and composure and create a more competitive climate for the No 1 position has been limited and the 'next best' have gradually drifted away.

It's been that way for the best part of 40 years since Paddy Cullen re-established himself as first-choice goalkeeper with only John O'Leary, Davy Byrne and Cluxton playing for any sustainable length of time.

Mick Kennedy had a short spell as goalkeeper in 1980 prior to O'Leary's first involvement, while Brian Murphy replaced Cluxton for that 2004 match against Westmeath that he missed due to suspension.

Michael Savage, the most used alternative in the Cluxton era with nine league appearances between 2008 and 2012, has not been involved since 2012, while Shane Supple has opted out after making just two competitive appearances last season out of a possible 15.

In fact, just four other goalkeepers have been given game-time on Cluxton's watch since 2002. In addition to the only championship game Cluxton missed, Murphy played six league matches, two each season, when Tommy Lyons was manager between 2002 and 2004.

Caffrey selected Cluxton more than any other manager, 46 out of 48 league and championship games between 2005 and 2008, deploying Paul Copeland against Tyrone in 2006 and Savage against Roscommon in 2008.

Caffrey carried three goalkeepers at that time but John Leonard never got a game in league or championship.

So Dublin's greatest strength has arguably created one of their great weaknesses now.

Being in his slipstream is a frustrating experience, deputising a potential harrowing one.

Thus when Cluxton was red-carded on Saturday for his petulant kick out at Kevin McLoughlin, who had attempted to knock the ball from his hand as he positioned himself to take his trademark kick-out, Dublin had to resort to a young man with no previous senior inter-county experience to step in to what was the league's most significant match of the this season's campaign.

Sean Currie didn't do badly with a majority of his kick-outs but focus has fallen on one, intended for Rory O'Carroll but intercepted by McLoughlin, that led to a Mayo goal.

That focus is sharper because of the efficiency with which Cluxton almost always restarts a game.

With current U-21 goalkeeper Lorcan Molloy saving a penalty in Wednesday night's Leinster final win against Meath, the case for his inclusion this weekend has hardened but big shoes are getting bigger to fill.

The red card shown to Cluxton was borne of frustration but also underlined a chink in the armoury that has always lurked since a similar lapse in discipline in the 2003 All-Ireland qualifier against Armagh.

Teams have been exhausting a lot of effort on analysing the Cluxton kick-out but attempts to delay them illegally by blocking his path or standing in front of his kick have been increasing in recent years.

After Saturday night, the focus on what may now be a potential chink in the armour is sure to increase.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: John Cooney on Ulster's European run and bouncing back from World Cup disappointment

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport