Thursday 17 October 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'If Stephen Cluxton does call it a day, we should be thankful to have witnessed a master'

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton salutes Hill 16 following the All-Ireland SFC final replay win over Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton salutes Hill 16 following the All-Ireland SFC final replay win over Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Standing amidst the post-match celebrations on Saturday evening, it was difficult not to be taken in by the enormity of what Dublin had just achieved.

Such was the quality and intensity of the contest, their second-half performance was the perfect way in which we could ask for our GAA records to be broken. Standing peerlessly beside his teammates was Stephen Cluxton.

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A modest man who normally shuns the limelight, his solitary lap of honour at the end of Saturday night’s celebrations might prove to be telling. Speaking to a few well-placed sources since, there is a strong feeling that Cluxton could be ready to call time on his stellar career.

He is almost 38 but, based on his performances this year, he could conceivably play into his forties. Intensely committed to his trade, a desire to do other things in life rather than lift Sam Maguire every September sounds oddly understandable given the context.

As for the game itself, it was captivating throughout, and frightening to watch if you were not from either Kerry or Dublin. The first half is up there with the best football that has ever been played. Forty attacks yielded an eye-watering 17 points from play.

It was breathtaking to watch at times. Dublin kicked 10 points from play without registering a single wide. Most other teams would have capitulated, yet Kerry showed everyone why it won’t be long before they climb the steps of the Hogan Stand.

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Dublin manager Jim Gavin acknowledges the cheers of the supporters after watching his side win a fifth successive All-Ireland title. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
As one of the few pundits that tipped Kerry before the game, at half-time few would have disagreed that an upset was a distinct possibility, with the wind blowing very much in Kerry’s favour as the first half drew to a close.

Dublin’s second-half performance, however, was a culmination of everything Jim Gavin, Cluxton et al. have poured into the team over the years.

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Whilst many will understandably point to Eoin Murchan’s early second-half goal as the defining score of the game, for me Paul Mannion’s point on 51 minutes clearly illustrated the gulf in class between not just Dublin and Kerry at present, but every other contender.

Responding well to that restart sucker punch, Kerry had managed to keep Dublin within touching distance at a time in the game when other teams wave the white flag.

At that point in the game Kerry were trailing by two points but, with the clock running down, they needed the ball. But by maintaining Paul Murphy as a sweeper it gave Dublin an extra body in the middle third with which they used to monopolise possession.

This can be now known as Kilkenny-time, when Castleknock maestro Ciaran Kilkenny took over proceedings. Not to be lured into turnover territory, Dublin retained possession in the middle third for close to three minutes. An eternity in real-time football.

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Kerry's Paul Murphy in action against Dublin's Niall Scully, left, and Paul Mannion during the All-Ireland SFC final replay at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Whilst it was a shape that had kept Kerry defensively solid over the two games to that point, time was running out and they needed to change things up. Should they stick or twist? Kerry stuck and Dublin twisted.

When Dublin eventually ventured into the scoring zone, Kerry came within touching distance to regaining possession.

Not close enough, and when Mannion accurately kicked over his shoulder to finish off a pivotal phase of play in the game, you got the sense there was only ever going to be one winner.

From there on, Kerry snatched as Dublin remained composed. It was the score that finally broke Kerry’s resolve. 

Cluxton, as he has been for all of his career, was a steady hand throughout that steered them into the winners’ enclosure. Dublin’s best player over the two finals, if this proves to be his last hurrah it was a fitting end to a remarkable career.

Yet amidst all the plaudits directed towards him and Dublin’s achievement, the debate surrounding Dublin’s financial advantages is unavoidable.

Winning All-Stars and perfecting his craft long before any discussions around Dublin’s resources took hold, Cluxton has unquestionably been their most influential figure on the pitch.

No amount of money will replace what a player like Stephen Cluxton has contributed to Dublin football.

This morning, he is likely to be back at work in St David’s CBS Artane, teaching photosynthesis and cellular mitosis to his wide-eyed biology students.

That strangely elusive sixth All-Star is a shoo-in and his close-to-flawless All-Ireland final performances have moved him into strong contention for Player of the Year. Con O’Callaghan stands as his nearest contender.

Player of the Year, historic five-in-a-row captain. Not even Carlsberg would dare dream up that type of send-off.

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