Tuesday 20 August 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Like Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, Stephen Cluxton has changed his sport forever'


Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

History will be made in Croke Park today when Stephen Cluxton is handed the number one jersey.

The Test cricketer's dream, 100 not out. And no sign of Cluxton getting bowled out either, no night watchman needed here. Quite apart from his record of consistency, Cluxton's tenure has revolutionised the role of the goalkeeper. It is not that long ago when the cúl báire was not even trusted with the kick-out. His biggest job was to place the ball for the full-back to put a big toe under it and drive it out to the middle of the field.

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Donal Keoghan and Meath have to make their own tradition of winning. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Donal Keoghan and Meath have to make their own tradition of winning. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

In the Pat Gilroy era, Cluxton brought a new definition to the role. Dublin started to work on short kick-outs to half-backs and then corner backs. It wasn't something which gained immediate acceptance. Supporters were very wary of the tactic and Ciaran Whelan, who was in midfield at the time, has often said he was not an immediate convert.

Like a lot of midfielders, he looked on fielding the kick-out as a test of his ability, and maybe manhood. With that gone the midfielder's role was greatly diminished - or changed. Even supporters were not convinced and there was plenty of encouragement from Hill 16 to lash it out into the middle, especially if a short one went wrong.

Cluxton persisted and did not bow to popular demand. It reflected his whole career: he has kept his cards close to his chest and never set himself up as a poster boy of the GAA.

Cluxton plays his game his way, goes home, end of story, beginning of mystery. He lives by that old sporting maxim: the more he practises the luckier he gets. Constant practice. It is the same story for all greats in their chosen sport. Talent backed up by a slavish devotion to improvement. If it comes down to it, the commitment to self-improvement probably makes up for a lack of talent.

As I have written many times in the past, Cluxton is the single biggest influence on the development of football since I started watching the game. Naturally many have followed suit at county level, but even in club football, goalkeepers are now expected to get away most of their kick-outs to their own men - indeed, it is demanded of them. Maintaining possession has become an obsession.

Cluxton has also brought seismic change in other ways. There was a time when coaches of young players picking teams for a practice game would have to negotiate a peace deal to get someone to agree to go in goals. It often meant constantly switching the position, or putting one of the less talented players in goals.

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Now the goalie is far from an afterthought. There are plenty of volunteers as the goalkeeper knows he is going to get more kicks of the ball than anyone else. He can join in the outfield play and is looked on as one of the most, if not the most, important player on the field.

So Cluxton can be compared favourably with other great sportsmen who changed their sports. Maybe we do not count on the world stage, but if you look at the contribution to change made by the likes of Michael Jordan in basketball, Wayne Gretzky in ice hockey, Jackie Robinson in baseball, Pele in soccer, Jesse Owens in athletics or Muhammad Ali in boxing, and there are many, many others, then Cluxton, in our small game, has been just as important.

Today he will do his job again, without pomp or ceremony. Dublin will win, he won't smile so things will remain as normal unless Kildare stick five or six goals in the net. That is not going to happen.

The Dubs will march on and anyone who thought their appetite might be sated got a response in the Louth match. It was not the win that sent out a message but the fact that the fight for places is still so intense, the honesty of effort remains and the ability and class of all their players is second to none. They just want to win again, whether it is five or ten is of little consequence.

The other match in Croke Park will certainly be a contest, however. Meath and Laois are not far apart. In the League, Meath were promoted to the top division, and Laois are now in Division 2 after two years of solid progress under John Sugrue, who quietly goes about his work.

Laois beat Westmeath by two points in the quarter-final, a reversal of the two previous meetings this year, one in the earlier rounds of the league and the other in the Division 3 final in Croke Park. Meath probably expected to be meeting Westmeath, I certainly did and that should in itself send out a warning to the Meath squad.

Meath really struggled against Offaly in the first round and were then efficient in dispatching a very indisciplined Carlow last time out. That match told little but Meath are judging progress as a minimum of a Leinster final appearance. The prize for that, even in defeat, is to be one game from the Super 8. It would be a serious setback after promotion if Meath did not reach the last eight. There are not that many good teams in the country.

The price of any county team doing well, though, is that there is no club football for county players. In its lack of wisdom, Meath County Board has run off the local league from January to early June, which means no competitive games for clubs between now and August.

In fact, any club beaten in their first two championship matches in April are more or less finished for the year. This scheduling makes absolutely no sense. It gets games played but there is a very big difference between playing games and having a proper fixtures plan. Clubs should have spoken up instead of going around with their eyes wide shut.

The other price of this cramming of fixtures is that the vast majority of county players have not played even one League game out of 13 with their clubs. It is the same everywhere. The isolation of players from their clubs is almost complete. Soon there will be posters up in dressing rooms like there were in the wild west - 'Wanted, very much alive, county player for club service'. Perhaps a photograph will be used to remind locals of what their player looks like. It is a situation which runs contrary to the principles on which the GAA was founded. The bigger picture cannot be solved by Meath or any other county, even if Meath have made a dog's dinner of this year's club fixtures. Long evenings in June and July are when games should be played. The wider implications for clubs in general is something which needs radical overhaul.

I expect Meath to win today. Few counties are putting as many resources into preparation as Meath and Andy McEntee will be reassured that the team is well conditioned and are being given every opportunity to win and continue winning. The players on the field now have to take the responsibility of creating their own tradition of playing in Croke Park in big games on a regular basis. And winning.

Laois are well organised and we can expect a bit of entertainment from their goalkeeper Graham Brody, who goes walkabout on a regular basis. Most of the time it works as he helps to set up attacks, but against Westmeath in the League final he got caught out and Laois leaked a decisive goal. Hopefully he keeps it up, because generally it works for his team and anyway it adds a bit of excitement.

In the old days, if a goalkeeper came out 20 metres he was looked on as fair game for the opposition to put him in a headlock and give him a few smacks around the ears to teach him a lesson. Now, thanks to centurion Cluxton, they have the freedom of the park. Anyway I still expect (hope) Meath can win.

The best game of the day should be in Clones between Cavan and Armagh. Close matches do not mean great football and there seems to be some confusion about this in Ulster. Absence from live TV and poor hurling games has made the Ulster championship look better than ever. Either way, the games have been competitive at least, which is what most people want, and if the quality is not great then so be it.

Today will be another battle. Armagh have survived two games with extra time so they could be described as being in rude health. Yet they were a little short on quality when they had the game under control last week. Four points and a man up should have been the signal to push on and win. Cavan are now made of stern stuff and growing in confidence. Maybe they have even more left. I will go with the Breffni blues.

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