Monday 22 January 2018

For the record: Cluxton set to equal appearances mark, with Cavanagh hot on his heels

Eternal duo still blazing trail on football's big stages

Stephen Cluxton of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

They seem eternal. Stephen Cluxton for Dublin, Seán Cavanagh for Tyrone. For a decade and a half they've played in some of football's biggest games and produced some of its memorable individual moments. While others have flickered briefly or have been dragged down by time, that most ruthless of man-markers, they've kept on keeping on.

Today Cluxton equals the all-time record for championship appearances with 88, while Cavanagh is just one game behind him. That both men are playing in provincial finals is fitting. Most of their sporting lives have been spent at or near the top.

By equalling the record, Cluxton makes Gaelic football history. But perhaps his greater achievement is to have changed its course - once instantly and once gradually.

It's a pretty tall order to play inter-county football for over a decade and a half. But it's even more daunting to face up to a free at the very edge of your scoring range, in the last seconds of an All-Ireland final, as Cluxton did in 2011. Kerry had been the better team for most of that game but had contrived to throw the Dubs a lifeline. The Kingdom would have been hot favourites in a replay. Cluxton had to nail that free. For Dublin's sake. Another loss to Kerry and the county's morale would go through the floor.

He had to nail that free. And he did, as matter-of-factly as if he was knocking a ball out to one of his midfielders in the warm-up. That shot was the axis on which modern football history turned. From it stemmed the eclipse of Kerry and the advent of an era of Dublin dominance. Stephen Cluxton did all that with one kick.

In doing so he began an era of goalkeepers being despatched up field to take long frees. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But no one was as accurate as Cluxton. He made the journey surprisingly often - in 2013 there were 16 championship points, in 2014 there were five.

The dragooning of goalies into free-taking duties was an interesting innovation but it's not how Cluxton changed football history. He did that by showing how, instead of being an isolated figure removed from the play, the man in the number one jersey could actually run the whole show. All that talk you hear about 'kick-out strategy' these days? You can blame Stephen Cluxton.

In the pre-Cluxton era teams could draw a breath when the opposing 'keeper lined up a kick-out. These days the opposition attack starts with the 'keeper. Cluxton's extraordinary intelligence and accuracy changed how the kick-out was regarded. Like the line-out in rugby, it turned from an even and uncertain contest to a guaranteed source of primary possession.

Guaranteed, that is, if you were good enough. A look at the travails suffered by the Derry and Galway 'keepers in recent weeks suggests that some custodians might be better off taking the retro approach. Their mishaps, and even an occasional slip by the maestro himself - as in last year's semi-final - show just how difficult was the task Cluxton made look so easy. Yet on he goes, not just arrowing those kicks to his team-mates but always picking out the team-mate best situated to get Dublin rolling forward once more. It's like watching Greg Norman hit fairways - Norman with Tiger Woods' short game and Jack Nicklaus's nerve.

There have been other great 'keepers but Cluxton is the greatest because he redefined the nature of his position. Very few players in any sport do that. He is the one indispensable weapon in Jim Gavin's armoury, the one player whose loss would have the potential to play havoc with Dublin's hopes of retaining their All-Ireland. He seems less an actual player than an immutable force of nature. It's almost impossible to imagine his team without him.

The same goes for Cavanagh with Tyrone. When the county won their first ever All-Ireland in 2003, he starred at midfield and, like Cluxton, brought something new to his position. Few previous midfielders had so consistently popped up deep in opposition territory and been so accurate when they did so.

The Armagh-Tyrone rivalry was central to Cavanagh's early years, fittingly because his club Moy is right on the Armagh border. In the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final, Tyrone looked to be on the verge of defeat when they trailed by two points in the dying minutes.

Then Cavanagh made a soaring catch in the middle of the field, ran at the heart of the Armagh defence and kicked a point which turned things Tyrone's way. It was the ultimate example of a great score's power to change a game.

Tyrone beat Kerry in that year's final but when the teams met three years later they were outsiders. Peter Canavan had gone, Owen Mulligan, Brian McGuigan and Steven O'Neill were peripheral figures on the bench.

It placed an enormous burden on Cavanagh yet he produced an astounding display at full-forward, kicking five points from play off the great Tom O'Sullivan and almost single-handedly dragging his team over the line. It was probably the greatest individual performance of our era.

You could look at the nine years since as an anti-climax, with Tyrone slipping back into the pack. Yet through it all Cavanagh strove to inspire teams which without his presence might have lapsed into mediocrity. Last year he was rewarded with a first Ulster title in six years.

This year Tyrone look the best they've been since 2008 and Cavanagh remains central. Restored to the full-forward position, he is a guiding light for players who were still in primary school when the Moy man's journey began.

Cluxton and Cavanagh . . . Steady Stephen and Big Seán . . . The dudes abide.

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