Friday 23 August 2019

'Innovator, meticulous trainer, leader' - Stephen Cluxton approaches 100th Championship appearance for Dublin

Stephen Cluxton is set to make his 100th Championship appearance against Kildare on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton is set to make his 100th Championship appearance against Kildare on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

What then, is left to be said about Stephen Cluxton?

Here, on the week of his 100th Championship appearance in Sunday's Leinster SFC semi-final clash with Kildare, all the tributes have already been wrung bone-dry.

It is indicative both of Cluxton’s influence and his longevity that every conceivable angle of praise and analysis of Dublin’s captain has already been covered many, many times, despite the fact that he is still playing.

He is an innovator. A meticulous trainer. A bona fide leader.

None of this is news to anyone. So where do you start? His record? His longevity?

The scope of Cluxton's influence on an era of previously unimaginable Dublin success?

No. The real intrigue around Dublin’s captain has always the personality concealed behind the laser-focused eyes.

"His background is he teaches science. And that's kind of how he approaches the game," says Michael Savage, one of the string of goalkeepers who have taken Cluxton on for the Dublin No 1 sport over the last 18 seasons.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin and goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton
Dublin manager Jim Gavin and goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton

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"He boils everything down to a science. If he wants to improve on his game, he deconstructs it and calculates the best way to improve at it."

As far as the St Vincent's goalkeeper can see, the primary natural advantage Cluxton was born with is a slavish devotion to improvement.

"To be honest, the thing with Stephen is, there is nothing different about him," Savage says.

"There's no secret. He just works so hard."

"He does genuinely work harder than everyone else. So he puts huge time in. But he also thinks about the game really deeply.

"If he made a mistake  or a goal went by him, the next training session would almost be built around making sure that didn’t happen again.

"So a lot of it is just down to the amount of time he puts into training and preparing and improving.

"But a lot of it also comes down to how much he thinks about how he can improve, and engaging people and techniques that can help him improve. A lot of that just boils down to hard work."

Back in 2002 and the heady days of Tommy Lyons’ first season in charge, Caffrey received an abrupt promotion from selector to manager on the eve of Dublin’s All-Ireland quarter-final with Donegal after Lyons had taken ill.

The squad were meeting at Na Fianna's grounds on Mobhi Road.

As they boarded the bus, Cluxton approached Caffrey with fire in his eyes, told him the players weren't properly focused and informed the stand-in manager in no uncertain terms that it was his responsibility to sort it out.

Cluxton was 20 and in just his second season on the senior panel but already, had a sense that things could be done better.

He is famously unconcerned with the associated trappings of being an inter-county footballer.

In 2010, we were dispatched to the Dubs’ then brand new training base at St Clare’s off Griffith Avenue to interview two of the Dublin panel who had been chosen to act as the group’s representatives for an endorsement deal with a sport’s supplements company.

Michael Savage of Dublin lifts the Sam Maguire Cup after the All-Ireland SFC final replay win over Mayo at Croke Park in 2016. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Michael Savage of Dublin lifts the Sam Maguire Cup after the All-Ireland SFC final replay win over Mayo at Croke Park in 2016. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Dublin were training at 7.0. Our detail was to be there at 5.15, to carry out the interviews and be off the premises by six o’clock.

At around 5.30, Cluxton appeared from the car park, gear bag slung over shoulder and witnessed two of his team mates jointly holding a tub of protein powder posing for a photograph.

He looked away, shook his head, tut-tutted and from the corner of a thin smile, jeered: 'selling your souls…'

In Jim Gavin, he met a kindred spirit, someone as microscopically concerned with the small details as him.

"And," Savage explains, "if training isn’t go well or lads aren’t putting it in, that would really get on his nerves.

"And he wouldn't be shy about making sure lads knew about it. That's very much his true self. He is a perfectionist."

As Savage also outlines, he has also mastered the skill of recalibrating after a mistake.

"I wasn't there at the start of his career but from when I started training with him until when I finished training with him, his temperament had changed," he notes.

"His personality is such that if he makes a mistake, it gets on his nerves. But he’s learned to deal with that it in a very productive manner.

"Paul O'Connell had that thing where he picks up the blade of grass and throws it away (after making a mistake).

"I've no doubt," adds Savage, “that Stephen has something similar, that if he loses a kick out or whatever it is, he just moves on.

"It's impossible to get him flustered at this stage. He’s just totally in control."

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