Saturday 24 August 2019

Ciaran Whelan: 'A few words from Stephen Cluxton at an underage training showed exactly how he reached the top'

Stephen Cluxton will make his 100th championship appearance for Dublin this Sunday. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton will make his 100th championship appearance for Dublin this Sunday. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Ciaran Whelan

During these golden years Dublin’s footballers have shattered many records, and they stand on the threshold of breaking even more before the year is out.

They could win nine provincial titles in-a-row, breaking Kerry’s record of eight (on two separate occasions; 1958-65 and 1975-82) and of course there’s the previously unachieved five in-a-row of All-Ireland SFC titles.

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This Sunday in Croke Park against Kildare their leader and captain, Stephen Cluxton, etches his name deeper into the GAA history books when he makes his 100th senior championship appearance. He is leaving an indelible mark on the game. It’s a record that is unlikely to ever be surpassed.

During his incredible career, he has already amassed six All-Irelands, five as captain, 14 provincial titles, five NFL crowns, and five All-Stars – he used to win them once upon a time!

Westland Row's most famous son, Oscar Wilde, coined the aphorism: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness" – it could be used to describe Cluxton.

Goalkeepers the length and breadth of the country now look at him as the No 1 to copy. A lot easier said than done, mind. The expression 'legend' is bandied around too easily but he is a real legend. His unreal dedication to his sport, how he has transformed both the goalkeeper’s role and Gaelic football itself make him one of a kind.

I distinctly remember Stephen coming into the Dublin panel in 2001. Ballymun Kickhams keeper Davey Byrne had picked up an injury in the weeks leading up to the Leinster Championship and so opportunity knocked for this young Parnell’s clubman.

I can recall one night dropping him home to Coolock just prior to our opening round clash with Longford. Sensing he was a little nervous ahead of the game, I told him to relax and that he was going out to do what he had prepared for all footballing career – and that while it was a big step, it would all work out.

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Little did I realise then what was to lie ahead for him.

In recent years, I’ve seen reruns of the famous All-Ireland quarter-final games against Kerry in 2001 in Thurles and wondered would the game have worked out differently if Cluxton had held onto the No 1 jersey and played that day.

As a midfielder I developed a strong working relationship with him from 2002 onwards. We’d often work together before training on kick-outs but he was always first to training, no player was ever at training before Cluxton.

It was his obsession to constant improvement that brought him to the level he has operated at for years ... hours and hours and hours of working away from the spotlight to hone his art.

During the midpoint of the 2000s, along with Shane Ryan at midfield, we had a great understanding. Shane’s movement, acceleration and Cluxton’s precision kick-outs gave us a strong platform.

It was strategy that moved up a notch under Pat Gilroy with wing-forwards Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly covering acres to gain possession. During this era, Cluxton really transformed the game. He embraced the tactical challenges that Gilroy and Mickey Whelan put before their team and was only happy if his stats were perfect.

In a sense, he took the game to such a different sphere that he made me redundant! I can remember training sessions, ‘A’ v ‘B’ matches back in 2009, when he’d be picking out corner-backs and wing-backs with pin-point accuracy as the midfielders wondered were we going to get a chance to hop off each other?

The only shortcut to success is hard work and Stephen was rewarded for his dedication by converting that iconic free against Kerry in 2011, showing great mental resolve. In the winter after that famous All-Ireland final Sportsfile published a pictorial annual of Dublin’s All-Ireland glory and in it are a few quotes from Cluxton ...  a scary thing.

"I treat all games equally. No one game is more important than any other.

"If we didn’t treat the semi-final as important as the final, we wouldn’t have been contesting it. What Kerry did or didn’t do cannot be thought about coming into a game. Kick-outs are not the sole responsibility of the goalkeeper; it involves the co-ordination of defence and midfield to work."

And believe you me if that co-ordination wasn’t working you’d know about it ... he could be moody at times. I’ll be eternally grateful for what he did to help my Dublin career and for what he has done for the county.

A few years after my retirement I was involved in a Dublin development squad management team we asked Stephen to come to a training session to give a talk to the young lads – on Sunday two of them will probably be on Dublin’s bench, Evan Comerford and Seán Bugler.

Cluxton had a few wise words for the lads and I can remember one line in particular. When someone mentioned the importance of practice by using the expression 'practice makes perfect' he interjected with 'you mean perfect practice makes permanent'. How apt.

Dublin have been blessed with great goalkeepers, men such as Paddy Cullen and John O’Leary, but Cluxton is the greatest. He has achieved everything in the game but for him the most important game is the next game and that’s why he won’t be thinking of records, Leinster titles or All-Irelands this weekend. He’ll only have his eyes on Kildare.

Who knows when he’ll eventually hang up the boots, maybe he be around to break Johnny McDonnell’s record of the longest career in a Dublin senior jersey (July 1919-May 1938)?

And after that someone may commission a special stamp to honour his achievements.

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