Saturday 16 December 2017

Keeping ahead of the game

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

You don't need to hear John O'Leary admit that he is already a better goalkeeper than he or Paddy Cullen both were before him. You don't need to hear from Tommy Lyons, the manager who gave him permanency as Dublin's No 1, that he is quite simply the best shot-stopper he has ever seen.

Nor do you need to hear the technical analysis of Gary Matthews, a renowned goalkeeping coach who has worked with the Dublin squad on a regular basis, as to why Stephen Cluxton is the supreme master of his trade.

Just consider these statistics. In 48 championship appearances for Dublin since 2001, Cluxton has conceded 26 goals. Critically, in those 48 games, he has kept 31 clean sheets.

Still not impressed? Well just compare the record to O'Leary, Gaelic football's most venerable netminder and considered by many to be among the top three goalkeepers ever to have played the game.

In 70 championship matches, O'Leary conceded 51 goals and kept 32 clean sheets, one more than Cluxton has managed in 22 fewer games.

That's the staggering comparison, the reason why mistakes from Cluxton always appear more magnified than all other practitioners.


The short kick against Tyrone in 2005 to Declan Lally that went askew and coughed up a goal for Owen Mulligan, courtesy of Sean Cavanagh's interception, and the misplaced clearance against Kerry in 2007 that led to the Kingdom's insurance score are memorable because they are so rare.

It's why the concession of three goals against Tyrone in 2008 and the five against Meath earlier this summer stand out so vividly.

Take the combined total of those two games out of his CV and his percentage concession drops to a much lower level, 18 goals in 46 games. Perhaps the stats are embellished somewhat by Dublin's defence and the level of opposition that Dublin have encountered, prior to this season, in Leinster.

But in the 17 games that Cluxton has conceded goals in, there have only been four where two or more goals have escaped his clutches.

"I believe he is better than Paddy was and I definitely have no hesitation in saying he is better than me. Barring injury or an inexplicable loss of form, this guy will be Dublin goalkeeper for the next 10 years," O'Leary once declared.

That was three years ago and, while the Tyrone and Meath games have chipped away at his armoury in the interim, there are few who would argue against the fact Cluxton remains the game's outstanding goalkeeper.

In his defence, there was little he could do to prevent any one of the five Meath goals that blitzed Dublin in June and that have, ironically, put them on the path to recovery.

Since then, he has added another impressive string to his bow, the regular conversion of '45s'.

With Mossie Quinn being relegated to the bench again after re-emerging against Meath, the responsibility for '45s' has fallen to Cluxton.

It's an unusual departure for a goalkeeper and, when first revealed against Tipperary, the sight of Cluxton bowling forward for the first execution felt like another stick to beat the management with, the failure to carry a proven free-taker from distance shaping like a shortcoming.

But with five of the six '45s' he has kicked since in four games sailing over, quite effortlessly in most cases, it now looks like an inspired move, an exercise in maximising Dublin's strongest resources.

Cluxton had been doing it for his club, Parnells, where he played outfield up to two years ago, so hitting such a specified target was something he was accustomed to.

O'Leary agrees that it has been a wonderful tactical ruse, not one he would have been prepared to carry out himself.

"I wouldn't have been good enough to do it. People say it's terrible that you haven't got a forward to do it, but if you have a guy on the pitch who's able to put them over, then he's the man who should be taking them," he said.

As good as his shot-stopping has been, it is the precision and thought behind his kick-outs that have really elevated his game over the last decade since his debut in 2001.

"We didn't use short kick-outs in my time because Stephen could kick it 70 yards at his ease and we invariably had Ciaran Whelan, Darren Homan and Darren Magee at the other end of them," recalled Lyons.

Cluxton had already played two championship games for Dublin in 2001 (when Davy Byrne was injured) by the time Lyons was installed as manager for the 2002 season and gave him the lead role.

"We alternated goalkeepers for the league in 2002 before opting for Stephen. Davy Byrne wouldn't have been happy, but if you were picking a team from the last decade Cluxton would be a certainty in my book.

"He's the best shot-stopper I've seen. He used to melt the head of the other players in one-to-one situations at training," said Lyons.

The only championship game he has missed in nine seasons was against Westmeath in that ill-fated Leinster first-round match in 2004 that came on Lyons' watch.

Cluxton had been sent off in Dublin's last championship match of 2003 for needlessly lashing out at Armagh's Steven McDonnell in a strange off-the-ball incident. As he made his way off the field he shook the hand of a bemused McDonnell. Lyons' embrace wasn't as warm.

The then-manager knew the value of the player and felt it against Westmeath when the kick-outs from Bryan Murphy, Cluxton's replacement, put more pressure on Dublin than they were used to.

Over time he has developed the delivery of his kick-out to the point where it has become one of the strongest parts of Dublin's arsenal.

Galway's Johnny Geraghty, Cork's Billy Morgan and, in more recent years, Galway's Martin McNamara have all been innovative with kick-outs but Cluxton has revolutionised the art of the restart in football as much as Donal Og Cusack has done so in hurling.

"The strongest point of his game over the years has been his kicking ability, in terms of his kick-outs," said O'Leary. "The possession we get from his kick-outs, even the long ones, because he's great at pinging them 40, 50 yards to players around the field."

Think of the amount of times that Shane Ryan has taken kick-outs from Cluxton on his chest out near the sideline or how often Alan Brogan has come from deep positions to take from Cluxton on the bounce.

His all-round football ability is something that is often missed.

"He's excellent at judging when to come off his line and that's a huge advantage for the full-backs because they know that if the ball is played in over the top, he will be onto it every time," said O'Leary.

For a 'keeper who was only third choice in his final year as a minor, his improvement has been impressive.

A teacher by profession, at St Vincent's in Glasnevin, he's a quirky character. He rarely, if ever, does interviews, he's reluctant to fly, which explains why his International Rules career has been restricted to home venues, while most of his colleagues over the years have found him difficult to second-guess.

But they know that, by and large, they can always depend on him. His selection as an All Star on three occasions (2002, 2006 and 2007) has often raised eyebrows, but the breadth of clean sheets in 10 years of service end any argument that he has been the best in the business.

Irish Independent

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