Thursday 19 July 2018

'Evan actually reminds me a lot of Stephen Cluxton'

Comerford looks set to be parachuted into action in Cluxton's absence but the Ballymun goalkeeper has modelled his style on one of the game's greatest and can stake his claim for future inclusion tomorrow

Evan Comerford (left) replaces the injured Stephen Cluxton in the early stages of Dublin’s Leinster SFC semi-final victory over Longford. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Evan Comerford (left) replaces the injured Stephen Cluxton in the early stages of Dublin’s Leinster SFC semi-final victory over Longford. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Suffice to say that if you mention the name Evan Comerford to most GAA enthusiasts, the Tipperary football goalkeeper from Kilsheelan-Kilcash is the first that springs to mind.

Tomorrow's Leinster SFC decider is likely to see the Dublin version make his full championship debut, however, with skipper Stephen Cluxton not expected to feature after suffering suspected rib damage after a nasty collision with James McGivney in their semi-final defeat of Longford.

Cluxton has revolutionised the goalkeeper's role during his 17 seasons with the Dubs, holding a vice-like grip on the No 1 shirt, and if he doesn't feature, it will be the first time in 14 years that he misses a championship game - and even that was due to suspension as they fell to Westmeath.

But what of Comerford - the young pretender to his throne who is set to be thrust into action against Laois? How did the 20-year-old find himself understudy to one of the game's greatest and how will he cope with the pressure of the big occasion?

The Ballymun Kickhams keeper was faultless following his first half-introduction two weeks ago and Dublin boss Jim Gavin has full faith in an exciting prospect who is "very strong mentally" and has "a bright future ahead of him".

"To be called up as a goalkeeper very suddenly can be quite traumatic but it didn't ruffle him at all. He looked very composed going in. I chatted to him just before he went onto the pitch, he was very much present and played very well," Gavin says.

However, it's fair to say that when compared to many of the game's finest 'keepers - towering influences like Mayo's David Clarke or Monaghan's Rory Beggan - Comerford is not your stereotypical goalkeeper at a fraction under 6ft with a slight frame.

And he ended up there by chance. Despite playing in goal with Bohemians in his early soccer years, he initially operated at wing-back for Ballymun until the first-choice goalkeeper no-showed for an U-16 league game and he was the most obvious replacement. He's been the last line of defence ever since.

It's been a rapid rise for the DCU Athletic Training and Therapy student, who had the dubious distinction of manning the goal for the Dubs when they suffered a shock 1-18 to 2-5 defeat against Meath in the Leinster MFC just two years ago.

That did afford him the opportunity to work with Cluxton's former goalkeeping coach Gary Matthews, however, and a year later he was an All-Ireland U-21 winner as Dessie Farrell's side got the better of Galway.

While Farrell only had Comerford for one year, he saw enough to know that he was the real deal and believes he has mimicked Cluxton's style to good effect.

"He actually reminds me an awful lot of Stephen Cluxton in many ways," former Dublin star Farrell says. "Evan would have observed Stephen over the years. They're very similar in terms of attitude: very professional, great temperament, continuously looking to better himself and make improvements.

"He would be quiet in his approach. He won't be shouting from the rooftops in a dressing room or team meeting situation but when he does speak, he speaks with great authority. He'd show leadership through his actions more so than anything else.

Respected

"He'd be very well respected and life would be a hell of a lot easier for coaches if there were more Evan Comerfords around. I'd say he would have styled himself a lot on Stephen and seen how Stephen approached the game and went about his business.

"I'm sure he's his role model, there's a natural connection there with goalkeepers as well and there's nothing like being immersed in the set-up and working beside one of the greatest ever, he would pick up a lot from him.

"Evan is the type of fella who would want to soak up as much knowledge, wisdom and experience as possible from working with him."

In an interview with oxygen.ie a few years ago, Comerford spoke of his admiration for Cluxton, with particularly praise of his kick-outs and that's an area of his own game he has spent vast amounts of time perfecting.

"I try to copy my training and kick-outs on what he does but if you're getting anywhere near his level you're doing well. He doesn't just hoof it into midfield, his kick-outs are quick and they lead straight into attacks," Comerford outlined.

Despite having current senior stars like Brian Howard and Con O'Callaghan among their ranks en route to lifting the last U-21 FC title, Farrell explains how Comerford adapted to the demands of playing in a side without the physical bulk of others.

Rather than going route one, he had to put a premium on accuracy and the 1995 All-Ireland winner describes how Comerford was able to dictate affairs with a Cluxton-like precision from every restart.

"It's part and parcel of every goalkeeper's training plan, time spent on kick-outs and practising accuracy and distance. Evan would be assiduous in how he goes about his business on that front. And also very tactically aware," Farrell explains.

"He came into us with a big reputation but he worked hard to understand that and develop that side of his game as part of a defensive unit. He would be very involved in driving the kick-out strategy as well.

"His kick-out ability and just how composed he is pretty phenomenal, he's so composed in picking out people. We wouldn't have had the biggest team, we had to move to a different style. We had smaller, lighter players and that obviously has an impact on the kick-out.

"A lot of your players might not have been in the position physically to compete with some of the opposition we were coming across so we'd to work hard on movement. That paints a huge amount of pressure on a keeper rather than just lumping it down to your midfielders, he dealt with all that stuff remarkably and his kick-out stats were phenomenal in terms of ball retention.

"His ability under pressure in big games to be able to find that pass, that accurate kick-out to relieve the pressure was immense."

While senior football is a massive step up in class, Farrell has no worries for Comerford - who was actually sub goalkeeper for the Dubs in their three Leinster U-20 games before graduating to the senior ranks - and views him as the natural successor to Cluxton.

"I wouldn't have any worries about Evan. Obviously he's still young and very much in the developmental stage of his career and it's a big step up playing in a Leinster final, but I do think he would relish it," he says.

Nervous

"I'm sure he'd be nervous and all that would come with that for a young fella, he's human after all but I think he'd cherish the opportunity and I've no doubt that he'll acquit himself well.

"Evan would be in pole position to be the understudy and then whenever Stephen does walk away, he would be the natural replacement. Given his development and the experience he's had with the seniors, I think it'd be some 'keeper to come in and dislodge him at this point in time.

"He's the obvious candidate at this point, but you never can say between injury and de-motivation, but for as long as he wants it, it's his."

The idea of being parachuted into action in a provincial final - becoming only Dublin's eighth championship goalkeeper since 1967 - is a daunting prospect, but if his assured performance against Longford is anything to go by, Comerford will bed in quickly although Laois are likely to target his inexperience.

It helps that clubmates Philly McMahon and James McCarthy - possibly John Small as well if recovered from injury - are not far away in defence every time he puts the ball on the tee and they have already been a calming influence in his development with Ballymun.

Comerford found it difficult at first to bark orders at players with All-Ireland medals falling from their back pockets but McMahon was quick to pull him up on it and a valuable lesson was learned.

"I wouldn't have told the backs what to do at first like I usually would, but Philly came over to me and said, 'We don't care what age you are you just tell us where to go and we'll go', which really encouraged me," Comerford said.

Irish Independent

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