Saturday 16 November 2019

Stephen Cluxton: The man behind the icy image

The silent exterior hides a great mind focused on the job in hand, writes Christy O'Connor

Stephen Cluxton
Stephen Cluxton

When goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicked the winning point from a free last Sunday to end a 16-year All-Ireland title drought for Dublin, the blue masses in Croke Park and the whole capital exploded with joy.

The only person who seemed unaffected by the moment was Cluxton himself. In a sporting age of emotional excess, he just turned and ran back coolly to his position.

At the final whistle, by his own standards, he went wild. But just for a moment or two.

He jumped into the air, punched his fist, hugged a ball boy before casually picking up his stuff from the goal. He walked out to meet his teammates, and then shook hands with all the Kerry players.

And that was it. There were no quotes for the media from the star of the show.

In truth, it was typical of the man. The first and only time that Cluxton spoke in public, he said everything he needed to say about himself in just a few sentences.

In Dave Berry's excellent documentary of a season spent on the road with the Dublin footballers in 2005, Cluxton was one of the players interviewed in the sedate setting of a corporate box in Croke Park.

Dublin won the Leinster title in dramatic fashion that July but Cluxton wasn't around to witness the mania and pandemonium of the pitch invasion, or listen to Paddy Christie's acceptance speech that followed.

"I went up first (to the podium) and I kinda looked around and said to myself, 'This is not really for me'," he said in that documentary. "So I said hard luck to the Laois lads and I went back down into the dressing room. I was the first one in there. I'm out to play football and that's really all it is. It's nothing else."

Those comments seem perfectly apt now in the context of last Sunday, when Cluxton was as true to his character and his word as he had been six years earlier. He headed for the dressing room before the acceptance speech, returned, before disappearing again and forgoing the celebratory lap of honour with his teammates.

When RTé commentator Marty Morrissey followed him into the dressing room with the ulterior motive of trying to snag him for an interview, he asked Cluxton why he wasn't out embracing the explosion of emotion.

"Nah," he replied, "it's not for me."

Despite his heroics, Cluxton's status transcended beyond the realm of sport afterwards almost as much for his reticence to embrace the moment as his achievement in creating it.

That mysterious perception around his character was inflated further on Monday morning when his school principal at St Vincent's in Glasnevin, John Horan, described how Cluxton had told him that he would be in to school on Monday, no matter what the result. Privately, Horan had to warn him to take the day off.

So who is the enigmatic Stephen Cluxton? What is known about him can easily fit into a paragraph or two.

He is 29 and 5ft 11in. He lives in Coolock and has a long-time girlfriend, Joanne O'Connor. Although he was into soccer and badminton as a youngster, his family have a GAA background -- his sister Avril won an All-Ireland ladies senior football medal with Dublin last year. Outside of football, one of his main interests is going to the cinema.

He is one of the most familiar GAA players in the country but there has always been an element of mystique surrounding Cluxton.

He has steered clear of the media and declined numerous offers for commercial and endorsement engagements. His perceived dislike of air travel is widely known and is said to have restricted his International Rules career. But that's a myth. The time involved to go to Australia just hasn't always suited him or his job.

He conveys an image of a pencil drawing without flesh or colour -- but Cluxton's character is deep and multi-layered. Anything he is passionate about is driven by a huge intensity and an almost obsessive pursuit for perfection.

"Someone asked me after the game, 'Is this guy a complete header?'" says one close friend. "I said no. Stephen's attitude would be: 'I'm doing everything in my power to do this job right. And now that I've scored and Dublin have won, my job is done and there's no need for any fuss.'"

The respect in which he is held by his teammates is immense because nobody trains harder, or demands higher standards, both from himself and those around him.

That applies to everything he does. Over the summer, he oversaw two young players in his club, Parnells, through a weights programme. One morning, they turned up one minute late and Cluxton warned them that if it happened again, he was pulling out. It never did.

He brings an intense focus to everything he does and he takes his teaching job as seriously as his football. Before big games, Cluxton gets into such a zone that people rarely go near him.

That level of intensity often propagated an image as an austere, ultra-serious and dour individual. He can appear aloof and cold and his intense stare can be intimidating.

Yet close friends say that he's "very loyal" and that he just likes his "own time to himself".

For years, he walked to Dublin training in Parnell Park from his home in Coolock. Teammates passing would often pull up and offer him a lift. More often than not, Cluxton would decline, happy to have his own head-space.

Those close to him also say that he's not shy but he was clearly uncomfortable under the camera's gaze during The Sunday Game's broadcast last Sunday night.

His unflinching mentality and seriousness about his football has sometimes drawn up a comparison with Roy Keane in that he's almost too wound up to be able to relax and celebrate his success.

That is not true. Teammates describe him as "great craic" when he's out, especially when he's drinking his favourite drink, WKD Blue. He didn't go to bed last Sunday night and was in the lobby of the Burlington hotel on Monday morning before mixing with supporters in the Boar's Head pub on Capel Street.

By the middle of the day, he was back in his local pub in Coolock, The Goblet. After the civic reception that evening, he returned to his club, Parnells, to celebrate with his own friends and club-mates.

Despite his preference for privacy, he erupted into public view earlier this year for a spat with former Republic of Ireland international Jason McAteer during a charity soccer match. Cluxton privately admitted afterwards that he wasn't proud of the bust-up -- but was amused by how much publicity it garnered.

When asked by a friend about the incident, he said that there had been a few confrontations with McAteer in the match before he felt McAteer pushed it too far and he decked him. In his mind, he was merely standing up for himself.

Cluxton got involved in a verbal exchange with Kerry's Kieran Donaghy last Sunday but he would never cross the line because he learnt his harshest lesson from the one time he did.

In Dublin's 2003 match against All-Ireland champions Armagh at Croke Park, Cluxton was engaged in a routine clearance but inexplicably chose to kick Steven McDonnell.

He was sent off and roundly criticised afterwards. Pundit Joe Brolly said he was a "disgrace", while Dublin manager Tommy Lyons said he felt his team would have won but for the dismissal.

It devastated him but it marked a critical point in Cluxton's career and had a profound impact on his interpretation of how fine the line between acclaim and criticism can be.

That was the primary reason for his low-key reaction to last Sunday's incredible feat but it also illustrated his immense mental strength and clarity under pressure.

When somebody extremely close to Cluxton asked him last Saturday if he was nervous about the match, his reply highlighted the ice in his veins. "Sure what have I to be nervous about?"

As referee Joe McQuillan blew the final whistle last Sunday, Kerry player Tomás O Sé had the ball in his hand. A few moments later, O Sé walked up to Cluxton, shook his hand and handed him the ball.

Cluxton accepted the gift but as soon as O Sé's back was turned, he drop-kicked the ball away with his right foot, where it nestled against the line of stewards gathered in front of the Hogan Stand.

It neatly encapsulated his mindset. Cluxton didn't need the ball to justify what he had just done. He's just out to play football. Nothing else.

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