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Cluxton v Clarke: Why the two keepers are central to their county's chances on Sunday

Click to view full size graphic
Click to view full size graphic
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

David Clarke has gone through so many experiences over the last 15 months that it's unlikely anything surprises him anymore.

From starting the 2016 championship as second-choice goalkeeper behind Robert Hennelly, to regaining the No 1 slot for the qualifier run which took Mayo to the All-Ireland final, to losing his place for the replay, to coming on when Hennelly was dismissed, to feeling the pain of a one-point defeat, it was quite a journey.

And it didn't end there. A few months later, he was on a flight to Dubai as All-Star goalkeeper.

Stephen Cluxton, a five-time All-Star, and Tipperary's Evan Comerford were also nominated, but once the selectors ignored the bizarre decision to omit Clarke for the final replay, he was a certainty for the award.

As the 2017 season comes to an end, Cluxton or Clarke will be the All-Star goalkeeper, with the odds (1/3) currently favouring the Dublin captain. Clarke is 2/1.

Cluxton is also favourite (11/4) to win the Footballer or the Year award, while Clarke is 100/1.

Yet, when their respective performances throughout the year are analysed, no logical basis for the disparity can be found. In fact, the contrast in the odds is totally baffling.

Clarke has, if anything, played better than last year. So too has Cluxton, but then he had a moderate 2016 campaign, certainly by the high standards he has brought to his game for so long.

This was always going to be an important season for him and his response has been emphatically positive. He had a quiet start to the Allianz League, getting a '6' in the Irish Independent ratings for Dublin's first three games.

He subsequently rated '8' in three games and '7' twice as Dublin's bid to win the league for a fifth successive year ended with a one-point defeat by Kerry in the final.

He averaged 7.4 in Dublin's five championship games, with his two best performances coming against Kildare in the Leinster final and against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Mayo had a mixed league (winning four and losing three games) but there was nothing uneven about Clarke's form, with his four best performances coming against Roscommon (9), Kerry, Dublin and Tyrone (8 each).

He has averaged 7.3 in nine championship games, with his three best outings coming against Kerry (replay), Cork and Derry.

He made a few excellent saves in the drawn semi-final too, but some of his kick-outs were picked off by Kerry, drawing the focus back to an aspect of his game which prompted Stephen Rochford to omit him for last year's final replay.

Claiming that Clarke's kick-outs are a liability is fashionable in the copycat school of analysis, just as identifying Cluxton's deliveries as unerring missiles has become the accepted norm.

Neither is strictly true. Clarke has had some difficult days with his kick-outs but is it all down to him? Outfield players have a responsibility too, yet goalkeepers are almost always blamed if the opposition win the re-starts.

Cluxton is certainly an accurate kicker but there have been days when things went badly wrong, with last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry being a clear example.

He gifted Kerry a goal off a kick-out but it didn't matter in the end as Cluxton's attacking colleagues did enough to win the game. A year earlier, he had problems against Fermanagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final and against Mayo in the drawn semi-final.

Cluxton has been back to his best this year but, unlike Clarke, who has been very busy, he hasn't been tested very often.

Dublin's outfield dominance provides him with a protective cushion that Clarke doesn't always enjoy behind a defence that conceded two goals in three of their last five games.

It would have been higher except for Clarke, who many believe is the best shot-stopper in the game.

His potential as a goalkeeper was obvious from his earliest days in Scoil Phádraig, Ballina where his talents were nurtured by teacher Liam Higgins.

"You could see straight away that he had an eye for goalkeeping. You can work on improving, but you need to have the natural instinct in the first place.

"David definitely had that," said Higgins, a former goalkeeper, who managed Ballina Stephenites to Connacht club success in 2007.

The Galway (Kilkerrin) native spent all of his working life in Ballina and watched Clarke grow into an outstanding goalkeeper.

"I remember him as an U-12 playing for Ballina against Knockmore and their manager telling them to shoot for points rather than take him on. I have no doubt he would have made it at the highest level in soccer if he had gone in that direction.

"His shot-stopping is outstanding and his command of the goal area gives great confidence to those around him," said Higgins.

So what was the reaction in Ballina when Clarke was dropped for the final replay last year?

"Surprised and annoyed too, I suppose. People couldn't understand why it happened," said Higgins.

A year on, Clarke and Cluxton will again probably play major roles in deciding the destination of the Sam Maguire Cup, while also waging a private war to settle who is No 1 for 2017.

The season could yet have fascinating twists for either or both.

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