Saturday 21 September 2019

From badminton to soccer and a chance stint in goal - How Stephen Cluxton became the most influential player of his time

Stephen Cluxton in action during the Dublin’s semi-final victory over Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton in action during the Dublin’s semi-final victory over Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

From throwing hands with former Irish soccer star Jason McAteer in a charity match; to his penchant for Blue WKD on rare nights out; to the media silence throughout his glittering Dublin career, it's fair to say that Stephen Cluxton is one of a kind.

The road to becoming one of the most influential footballers of all time was taking a much different path, however, until he entered St David's CBS in Artane, where his love of the big ball was fostered during his teens by an illustrious teaching staff.

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Growing up in Coolock, football was barely on his radar with badminton and soccer - he actively pursues both in the off-season and is a regular in Portmarnock badminton club, with former Dub Paul Flynn describing him as "unreal at it" - but that changed when he caught the bug.

Former Galway footballer Brian Talty - who was later a selector under Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey from 2005 to '08 - helped to develop his footballing passion in St David's, but Cluxton didn't start out between the posts - instead, he was a nippy corner-forward.

The move that would change the face of football and revolutionise the modern-day requirements of a goalkeeper came out of necessity rather than choice when the regular goalkeeper was unavailable for an U-16 game.

Culchies

Initially unimpressed, coaches would restore him out the pitch until a similar situation arose and there would be no going back, with Talty joking last year "that the Dubs are awful lucky to have the culchies up here finding all the talent for them!"

Kerry stand in the way of Cluxton captaining the Dubs to five in a row this Sunday - it would be his sixth crown as skipper and a seventh in total - but it was two sons of the Kingdom, selector Brian Lavin and goalkeeping coach Brian Moran, who gave Cluxton his big break with the Dublin minors in 1999.

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The rest is history as that season saw him star on a Leinster-winning side before making his senior championship bow just two years later against Longford and honing his craft to an unprecedented level.

A first All-Star followed in 2002 as Dublin came so close to securing their place in the All-Ireland decider when falling to Armagh, but a year later Cluxton was the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons against the same opposition.

Dismissed in their All-Ireland SFC qualifier loss to the Orchard after taking a heat-of-the-moment swipe at Steven McDonnell, then manager Tommy Lyons laid the blame for the loss squarely at Cluxton's door.

"If Stephen Cluxton did not get sent off we would have won the game. It was ridiculous stuff - your goalie getting sent off. It turned the whole game," Lyons remarked as he publicly threw Cluxton under the bus.

That flashpoint would have deterred many, but it set Cluxton out on a path to perfection with the addition of Gary Matthews - a former League of Ireland goalkeeper with UEFA coaching qualifications - under Caffrey in 2006 allowing his game to hit unparalleled heights.

Soccer had evolved into a possession game, so the pair saw no reason why football couldn't do likewise and the tactical kick-outs which dominate the modern game were born.

Matthews describes Cluxton - a Manchester United fan who idolised goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel - as a perfectionist and they sampled the use of heavier-than-standard balls to lengthen his kick-out and increase his range. No stone would be left unturned.

Repetition and nerves of steel under pressure separate Cluxton from the chasing pack in the view of former Dublin team-mate Barry Cahill and he has been on the wrong end of some tongue-lashings when not carrying out his responsibilities to the level his goalkeeper demanded.

"There are a lot of top inter-county goalkeepers but in front of 80,000 people, full house in an All-Ireland semi-final/final, when you're under that scrutiny and spotlight, it's a totally different dynamic," Cahill says.

"Stephen is obviously the best in the business when the pressure is at its highest and if he wasn't happy about something you would have heard about it straight away. He would have been letting off a fair bit of steam."

Cluxton was the hero of the 2011 All-Ireland final defeat of Kerry as 16 years without Sam Maguire were ended when he nervelessly fired over an injury-time free - practised thousands of times in training - to send The Hill wild and start a decade of dominance for the Dubs.

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Cluxton scores the winning point from a free-kick in the 2011 All-Ireland final clash with Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile

His reaction at the full-time whistle highlights a personality with no craving for the spotlight as he shook hands with friend and foe before Kerry legend Tomás Ó Sé handed him the match-winning ball.

No disrespect was meant but Cluxton kicked it into the crowd before sloping off to the Dublin dressing-room by himself, where Marty Morrissey's request for an interview with the man of the moment was answered with, "Nah, it's not for me".

Such disappearing acts could not be made after Jim Gavin made him captain in 2013, but it hasn't changed his approach and his standard-setting for the group, with Cahill insisting that the Parnells net-minder is a different personality behind closed doors.

"If there's something to be said, he'll be blunt about it. It doesn't matter if the player is only in the team 10 or 11 weeks or 10 or 11 years, he'll call it out and certainly he'd be pushing the boundaries around commitment and excellence," he says.

Cahill feels he knows nothing other than 100pc and remembers Cluxton's "perfect technique" and ability to lift weights as heavily as any outfield player when strength and conditioning was first introduced to the fold.

Cluxton has always been setting the standards for others to follow with his early arrival to training sessions - anything up to two hours before the official start time - going down in folklore, with team-mate Kevin McManamon effusive in his praise of the five-time All-Star.

"He's the man. He's one of the big drivers of the team. He'd have opinions on everything from defence, to attack, to kick-outs - he's not just a shot-stopper," he says.

"He'd be giving advice and asking questions. So, he's a good dude. The big leadership is his actions on the field."

For Kerry to derail the Drive for Five, Cluxton's kick-outs must be successfully targeted but the most likely sight on Sunday afternoon is the 37-year-old lifting Sam once more and further etching his name in history.

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