Thursday 22 February 2018

Greatest netminder of modern times has brought exciting new dimension to the position

Stephen Cluxton lifts the trophy after Dublin's victory over Tyrone in this year's Allianz League final
Stephen Cluxton lifts the trophy after Dublin's victory over Tyrone in this year's Allianz League final
Stephen Cluxton in action against Donnchadh Walsh during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final last month
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Some 46 minutes into last month's All-Ireland semi-final, Tomás Ó Sé surged forward and eventually linked with Darran O'Sullivan in the corner of the field where the Hogan and Davin Stands meet.

O'Sullivan bobbed and weaved his way into a scoring position, but his fisted effort drifted wide at the far post.

Just 12 seconds later, the kick-out was falling kindly into the unmarked Diarmuid Connolly's hands inside Kerry's half. He hardly had to break stride to gather it.

The move should have come to much more than it did as Connolly neglected Dean Rock to his right, putting a more congested Bernard Brogan away to his left. The shot was weak into Brendan Kealy's hands.

The point of recalling this passage of play is to dwell on its genesis. In a mere 12 seconds Stephen Cluxton retrieved the ball, ran out to place it on a tee, weighed up his options, took a few steps back and then drove it more than 60 metres into the arms of a colleague.

Looks simple. But so too does balancing on a high wire when you have perfected it.

It underlined the values Cluxton brings to the restart – speed, quick assessment, quicker execution, accuracy. By going so long and with such precision and speed of thought, he had turned defence into attack in an instant with the vision of a quarter-back surveying everything in front of him.


The advantage he has given Dublin from kick-outs is well documented. The greatest tribute to him is the stock placed on pressurising his kick-out by most opponents these days. 'Get to Cluxton, get to Dublin' is the mantra. No other goalkeeper has attracted such attention.

Generally, a Division 1 team will retain possession from just under 60pc of their own kick-outs, according to GAA performance analyst Rob Carroll, but Cluxton regularly goes beyond that even when opponents push up.

Cluxton brings so much more to his team than just sound shot- stopping and good housekeeping.

But even the way he carries out those basic requirements of goalkeeping alone elevates him to the top of his craft, before you add in the dimension that has revolutionised the position over the last decade.

From 65 championship games with Dublin he has kept 39 clean sheets and conceded just 37 goals – phenomenal statistics that even surpass John O'Leary's magnificent record over a 70-match span.

Five of those 37 goals came on the one afternoon against Meath in the 2010 and even then it's impossible to apportion blame to Cluxton, given the quality of the finishes and the naivety of the Dublin defending.

Indeed, apart from his concession of the penalty against Kerry the last day (did Donnchadh Walsh jump into him before Cluxton dragged the Kerry forward down?), it's hard to recall him being the chief culprit in any of the other 32.

His handling is flawless and, for a player who stands just short of 6ft his ability in the air against bigger opponents is another strong point.

So, too is his nerve. This writer recalls a Saturday night in early 2011 in Armagh's Athletic Grounds for Dublin's opening league match when he made a magnificent late save from Steven McDonnell.

McDonnell had the patience to wait and try to draw Cluxton. Cluxton held his ground. That capacity to know when to 'go' is perhaps his greatest asset.

The modesty of the man should preclude us from submitting O'Leary's comments on Cluxton to this newspaper in 2007, but such an honest appraisal nonetheless deserves an airing.

"He's technically brilliant at shot-stopping. His reads the angles to the point of precision, has marvellous reflexes and is as brave as they come," said O'Leary when talking about the great lineage of Dublin goalkeepers, which stretches back some 47 years.

The coup de grace for Cluxton is of course his long-distance free-taking and conversion of '45s.'

He wasn't the pioneer, but he has become the standard bearer for it because of his amazing success rate, with 0-40 garnered in four championship seasons from a distance of 40 metres and beyond.

Many other goalkeepers have tried it. Some have succeeded to a degree, but nobody has taken it further than he has – the kick to win the 2011 All-Ireland final is testament to that.

If it came down to the primary duty of shot-stopping and control of his area, the case for Cluxton would be strong anyway – but when you throw in the other dimensions, it takes him beyond every other goalkeeper in modern times.

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