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Capital regains: evergreen Dublin duo preparing to return

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Hard shoulder: Stephen Cluxton and Conal Keaney will return to action when football returns having overcome shoulder surgery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Hard shoulder: Stephen Cluxton and Conal Keaney will return to action when football returns having overcome shoulder surgery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Hard shoulder: Stephen Cluxton and Conal Keaney will return to action when football returns having overcome shoulder surgery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

To neither national acclaim nor peal of trumpets, Conal Keaney and Stephen Cluxton made their respective inter-county debuts within seven days of one another in May 2001.

Keaney, still a month away from sitting his Leaving Cert, made his debut off the bench for the Dublin hurlers - then at a deeply low ebb - as they lost to Laois in Nowlan Park.

The following Sunday, a whippet-like Cluxton began in goal for the footballers against Longford, only because of a hamstring injury suffered by regular goalkeeper Davy Byrne. Thus began the careers of the two longest-serving current inter-county players.

Unlike Keaney, whose prodigious reputation had been cultivated on the Dublin underage scene, Cluxton was almost completely unheralded.

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Just two years beforehand, he started the Dublin minors' campaign as third choice behind Vinny Galvin (Fingallians) and Éanna O'Reilly (Ballyboughal).

And by the 2001 Leinster final, Byrne's resumption of fitness meant automatic demotion for Cluxton to the bench.

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Dublin's Conal Keaney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Dublin's Conal Keaney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Dublin's Conal Keaney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Yet 19 years later, both are still standing. Still competing. Still waiting for word as to when or perhaps even whether their epic inter-county careers will recommence.

Context

By dint of those seven extra days, Keaney is the longest-serving player at senior inter-county level; Cluxton is second.

For context, Ross Munnelly and Niall McNamee are third and fourth on that list, having started out with Laois and Offaly respectively within a short space of each other in the summer of 2003.

No one else comes close, although David Clarke was first involved with a Mayo senior set-up in 2001, even if he didn't make his debut until 2005.

Cluxton, 39 in December, is the oldest player around, although last year, that record was briefly held by Darren Mulhearne, who incredibly, made his debut in goal for the Waterford footballers at the age of 46.

But Keaney's longevity is remarkable on a number of levels.

A look around the constitution of elite level hurling squads reveals a minuscule number of players over 32.

After Keaney, the next oldest Liam MacCarthy-level hurler is Anthony Nash, who will be 36 in October, a full two years younger. After that, it's Alan Nolan - 35 in June.

Both are goalkeepers. And for outfield comparisons, the next most senior man among the inter-county hurling fraternity is Eoin Cadogan, who will be 34 in September, the same month that Keaney turns 38.

Cadogan, who like Keaney has made the trip across the code divide, first started with the Cork footballers in 2007, six years after the schoolboy from Ballyboden St Enda's,

Waterford's Kevin Moran (33) first played championship hurling for the Déise in the summer of '06, five seasons into Keaney's career.

Yet arguably more impressive than Keaney's longevity is his durability.

At 29, he suffered a broken ankle and torn cruciate ligament in a motorbike accident in which he later admitted he was lucky to escape with his life.

Last year, at 36 - and having spent two summers in assumed inter-county retirement - he came back from shoulder reconstruction surgery and produced one of his greatest individual performances against Galway in Parnell Park.

An operation to remove a screw from that shoulder meant he played no league hurling for Dublin this year.

It also made their original May 10 championship opener a stretch for Keaney to be fully match-fit.

If anything then, the delay and associated rest may be beneficial to Keaney retaining his place as one of the load-bearing items of the Dublin pillars, assuming it doesn't force a complete abandonment of this year's championship.

Which is where the line of symmetry with Cluxton resumes.

In early March, the Dublin captain made his comeback to competitive sport playing for junior soccer outfit Elm Mount during an AUL Division 3 clash against Meath side Stamullen following shoulder surgery.

This is familiar territory.

Speaking after he won the Footballer of the Year award last year, Cluxton revealed how in the aftermath of his injury in 2018, how he found it "a struggle to try to get back up to the level I wanted", forcing him to consider walking away.

Yet despite his lack of preparation this year, and the superb form of Evan Comerford, it was generally accepted that Cluxton would slot straight back in as Dublin goalkeeper this summer.

Last week, during an interview conducted through conference call, James McCarthy was asked about being chosen by Dessie Farrell to captain Dublin for the portion of the league already played.

"Look," he insisted, "I'm only minding it until Stephen is back, I'm sure."

And having produced his best summer in 2019 at 37, it's not unreasonable to expect he could do something similar in 2021 at 39, if Armageddon hits and no championship football is played this year.

Like Keaney, the competitive urge still guides Cluxton, almost two decades on from when they started.

Irish Independent