Tuesday 21 November 2017

Ciaran Whelan: I strongly believe Stephen Cluxton's relationship with the media hurt his All Star chances

Stephen Cluxton
Stephen Cluxton

Ciaran Whelan and Frank Roche

Herald GAA correspondent Frank Roche and Ciaran Whelan debate the 2017 All Star football team's tightest call: David Clarke over Stephen Cluxton in goal.

Should the Dublin captain have won an All Star?

Ciaran Whelan - Yes

A WEEK may have passed since the announcement of the 2017 All-Stars but the debate continues, and rightly so, surrounding the non-selection of Stephen Cluxton.

Debate is what the All-Stars are all about in some respects and the great thing about them is the differing opinions that surround the 15 players fortunate to be recognised for their efforts over the year.

The argument doesn’t extend to previous years so there is little point in making reference to Cluxton’s wonderful career that has radically altered the footballing landscape in the modern era.

This is all about what happened in 2017 and when you look at the evidence in front of you, it’s hard to fathom the outcome given the form of Dublin’s goalkeeper this year.

Equally, there is merit in recognising David Clarke as a superb shot-stopper and someone worthy as been considered a key component in Mayo’s continued quest for All-Ireland SFC glory.

However, was his form better than Cluxton’s this year?

The simple answer to that is ‘no’ as Cluxton’s form was as compelling as it has been since he made his intercounty debut as a precocious 19-year-old and has subsequently become the finest goalkeeper to ever have graced the game.

When you weigh things up, the first thing to ask is what could he have done more this year?

He did everything that was asked of him, and more, and I firmly believe that the reason he may not have been selected is the exemplary standards that he has set for himself.

Perhaps, the selection committee felt that there was a slight dip in his powers this year and maybe they have focussed on the relative struggles that he endured in the first-half of the All-Ireland final against Mayo.

Certainly, Dublin struggled initially in terms of primary possession that day but Cluxton showed his ability to adapt in the second-half and was 100 per cent on his kick-outs after half-time.

Clarke, had his issues with his kick-outs as well, most notably against Kerry in their drawn semi-final and of course, his composure deserted him in the final minutes of the All-Ireland final including that fatal final kick-out that went out over the Cusack Stand sideline.

Mayo had to re-invent their kick-out strategy for the replay against Kerry as Clarke’s kick-outs had left them under serious pressure at centrefield and he just doesn’t have the variety in kick-outs which puts him at a serious disadvantage when comparing the two goalkeepers. 

Cluxton, in contrast, was ice cool and his ability to make calm decisions under pressure is what has set him apart from other goalkeepers, alongside his unbelievable range of restarts.

In terms of the expectations applied to him, Cluxton suffers in contrast to other nominees but I strongly believe that he also suffers in terms of the selection committee due to his reluctance to engage with the media.

Naturally, anyone on the committee would vehemently deny that is a consideration when assessing the merits or otherwise of the candidates but I’m around long enough to know and experience the influence that politics and personalities can have on issues like this.

I would also have issue with the committee in selecting four players for the Player of the Year award as that seemed to fudge the issue, especially when one of the nominees was going to miss out on an All-Star.

Unfortunately, from Cluxton’s perspective, it was Clarke who was chosen and as I have reiterated above, I feel he is an excellent ’keeper.

Cluxton’s leadership qualities are probably irrelevant in some respects when discussing the

All-Stars as well but only a fool would underestimate the significance of that role in terms of Dublin’s success in recent years and naturally, that includes his influence over the past summer.

As I stated in my introduction, it is all about opinions and there may, understandably, be a small bit of bias given my Dublin background.

There were few enough people objecting to Andy Moran winning the Player of the Year accolade and most people within Dublin would recognise the remarkable efforts of Moran in trying to get his team to achieve their Holy Grail.

Similarly, we are allowed to be dismayed when we feel an injustice (and I use that term lightly) has been done and as far as I’m concerned, Cluxton was the best goalkeeper this year.

I will finish by asking that if any manager was preparing for an All-Ireland final tomorrow and had the pick of the best players in the country at present, who would they pick as goalkeeper?

Who is the goalkeeper with the best form and who produced the best performances in 2017 and has the best qualities to perform that arduous and vital role?

There is only one answer.

Frank Roche - No

WHO is the greatest goalkeeper of all-time? Stephen Cluxton. Name the ’keeper I’d select if I was Fantasy All-Ireland final manager for a day? Stephen Cluxton.

Name the netminder I voted for inclusion on this year’s PwC All-Stars football team? David Clarke.

Given the Twitter typhoon caused by Cluxton’s omission last Friday, part of me wonders if I should follow the Hollywood approach in the face of such outrage, issue a damage-limitation apology for inexcusable past behaviour when I was clearly under the influence and sign myself straight into therapy.

Except that I wasn’t. So here goes with my non mea culpa …

I can’t speak for any other All-Stars football selectors (there are 16 of us in total) and have no intention of divulging details of last week’s debate because it’s not my place. 

But I can say why I opted for Clarke after much review, DVD and otherwise, and reflection.

I’ll be straight, this was a wafer-thin call. When selecting an All-Star 15, you normally have ten or 12 shoo-ins and the rest are borderline. This was one of them. Why? Because both Clarke and Cluxton were so consistently impressive.

Without question, Cluxton enjoyed his best season since 2013, when he won his fifth All-Star. But Clarke’s form was undeniably better this year than last, when he was the (again controversial) choice.

And maybe that’s part of the issue here: the impression that Cluxton has been ‘ignored’ four years running at the height of Dublin’s greatest era of dominance.

But it’s important to stress: All-Stars are chosen purely on calendar year form. Cluxton’s iconic status as a three-in-a-row All-Ireland winning captain is not up for debate ... nor was it part of the debate.

But surely he’s the better ’keeper? I happen to agree. But when you dig forensically into the past year, my contention is that Clarke’s contribution to Mayo’s cause was slightly more compelling. I reached this conclusion based primarily on three factors: (1) the sheer quantity of his saves; (2) the jaw-dropping quality of several; and (3) the critical importance of several others.

Clarke faced 18 goal attempts in Mayo’s ten-game SFC odyssey and saved ten of them. While partly culpable for Derry’s goal, this was countered by a vital first half save from Carlos McWilliams (Mayo would have fallen four adrift) and a penalty save in extra-time. 

That McWilliams stop was one of many such pivotal moments: his first half one-on-one with Clare’s Jamie Malone as Mayo teetered on the brink; an acrobatic tip-over from Tomás Clancy during Cork’s second half comeback; his dash from the line to repel Jack Barry’s attempt to push Kerry four up; yet another reminder of his foot-smothering brilliance against Paul Mannion in the All-Ireland final.

All huge saves. But not his best: we’d argue the case for his stunning denial of Stephen O’Brien (as part of a double-save in the Kerry replay) and his sensational treble-save from Dublin’s Paddy Andrews in March.

Which brings us to another tie-break factor: Clarke’s consistent league brilliance, with an array of saves against Kerry, Roscommon and Dublin. He faced three penalties over the year – against Kerry’s David Moran, Andrews and Derry’s James Kielt – and stopped the lot.

In all of the above, we’re not trying to rubbish Cluxton’s stellar season; anything but. Clarke conceded eight SFC goals, Cluxton just two – but the latter played four less matches, facing far less shots.

You could argue that Cluxton suffers the ‘Curse of James McGarry’ because he plays in front of a defence so rarely breached. 

That said, he was busier than usual and showed his enduring class to deny Monaghan’s Jack McCarron, Tyrone’s Peter Harte (penalty) … and even better and more important one-on-one stops from Kildare’s Daniel Flynn and especially Mayo’s Jason Doherty.

As you’d expect, his kickouts over the year were better. But not by a sufficient margin to swing our vote: Clarke had his first half wobbles against Dublin (league) and Kerry (drawn semi-final), and then lost three of his last five in the final. Including that fatal last one over the sideline: in some minds, enough to seal his fate. We beg to differ.

Clarke still ‘won’ a higher percentage of his final kickouts (82pc compared to Cluxton’s 76pc) because of Dublin’s first half woes in the face of a huge Mayo press. Even his summer-long stats (80pc) are only marginally below Cluxton’s 84pc, despite the greater tendency of teams to push up on Mayo’s kickout.  

In summary, Cluxton was close to flawless and ours was not a vote against him; rather an endorsement of an ultra-busy man who saved his county time and time again.

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