Thursday 17 October 2019

Kick outs, clean sheets, longevity and shot-stopping: How Stephen Cluxton changed the face of the game

As he ties Tomás and Marc Ó Sé for most appearances in the championship, Cluxton is showing no signs of slowing down

16 years after he made his championship debut for Dublin against Longford, Stephen Cluxton has left a lasting impact on the game Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
16 years after he made his championship debut for Dublin against Longford, Stephen Cluxton has left a lasting impact on the game Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The 2015 All-Ireland football final was scarcely a minute-and-a-half old when Stephen Cluxton stood over his first kick-out and surveyed his options.

Kerry had pressed up high so Cluxton wheeled around to his left and aimed for an area of space near the Cusack Stand sideline.

On the greasy surface his delivery carried a bit of extra pace and skidded out of play.

The derisory cheers around the ground were, in a way, a back-handed compliment to the Dublin goalkeeper.

An errant kick-out will normally draw a reaction but on that scale? That can only be reserved for Cluxton.

After glitches by Cluxton in previous games against Fermanagh and Mayo, Kerry were hoping to exert enough pressure to profit too and, by the end, seven of his 19 restarts had failed to reach Dublin hands.

It was well below Cluxton's above 80 per cent average retention but still above the 60 per cent average enjoyed by goalkeepers at that level.

The trouble for Cluxton is he's not judged any more by ordinary standards, he's judged by his own.

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Thus, the last couple of years have been considered fallow by his exalted standards, the word meltdown accompanying his name after that Fermanagh game in 2015 and the Kerry All-Ireland semi-final last year in a manner that would, for so much of his career, not have been thought possible.

But by the All-Ireland final replay against Mayo last year his kick-out service in the second half had been a huge factor, just as it was in the second-half of the 2013 final against the same opposition.

Throughout the league Cluxton has, arguably, been back to his best in every aspect of his game, especially shot-stopping which has receded against the weight of his kick-out and placed-ball contributions.

Against Kerry in Tralee when he tipped over a powerful Paul Geaney drive, against Mayo in Croke Park when he denied Cillian O'Connor and Kevin McLoughlin in quick succession and against Roscommon a few weeks later when, despite their ease of victory, he stood up to prevent Shane Killoran, he has shown a greater sharpness and command.

Blips never become full-blown crises with Cluxton.

Last month, John O'Leary reiterated a long-held view that Cluxton was the best goalkeeper he had seen, offering the view that he has the fitness and the tools to continue until he is 40.

It might not come to that but in terms of what he can achieve, the sky remains the limit for the 35-year-old.

Already, he is the only All-Ireland winning captain to lift the Sam Maguire Cup three times, a distinction that would offer him a special place in GAA history irrespective of whatever else he achieved.

Tomorrow, Cluxton reaches another career milestone when he will join the Ó Sé brothers, Tomás and Marc, at the head of the championship appearances list with 88.

Just behind him, currently with 86 championship games played, is Sean Cavanagh.

If both provincial finals go according to plan with Dublin and Tyrone wins, Cluxton will break the record in an All-Ireland quarter-final and become the first player to make 90 championship appearances in an All-Ireland semi-final, provided Dublin keep winning.

It is very much a modern phenomenon as the attached list illustrates with the advent of All-Ireland quarter-finals and qualifiers providing more opportunities.

More than half of the list of the top 15 features players from the Kerry team that played in six successive All-Ireland finals between 2004 and 2009.

Three come off a Tyrone team that played 10 matches in 2005, including three replays, to win an All-Ireland title.

It puts into context John O'Leary's phenomenal run between 1980 and 1997 when he started 70 consecutive games over an 18-year period.

Cluxton's service has been largely unbroken too. After making his debut against Longford in the 2001 Leinster Championship and playing against Offaly in a subsequent match, he returned to the bench for the remainder of the season as predecessor Davy Byrne was restored.

But by the beginning of 2002 Cluxton was in place as No 1, missing just one game, that ill-fated 2004 Leinster quarter-final against Westmeath, as he served a suspension for the red card he had picked up the previous year against Armagh in a qualifier defeat.

Since then his unbroken sequence of 75 games has surpassed what O'Leary achieved in almost two decades.

He's been able to rely on better organised and more collaborative defensive approaches than O'Leary could and that is reflected in his statistics.

From the 87 championship games he has now played he has enjoyed 50 clean sheets, a 57.5 percentage rate.

In only 10 of those games has he conceded more than one goal and in only four has the county gone above two.

His heaviest concession saw five Meath goals fly past him in a 2010 Leinster semi-final while Tyrone (2008 All-Ireland quarter-final), Kerry (2013 All-Ireland semi-final) and Donegal (2014 All-Ireland semi-final) all caught him for three.

He's faced most of the modern-day goal-scoring greats but the forward that has beaten him most comes from a less celebrated football county.

Wexford's Redmond Barry scored four goals against Cluxton in four different games from 2005 to 2012, eclipsing such luminaries as Owen Mulligan, Colm Cooper, James O'Donoghue and Cillian O'Connor. Donegal's Ryan McHugh has stolen in for three.

His application to the requirements of goalkeeping are renowned. One of the many replacement goalkeepers who played with him, John Leonard, penned an award-winning autobiography, 'Dub Sub Confidential' which detailed the understudy years.

Leonard had decided that to challenge Cluxton he had to work harder than him and took to arriving an hour before training to get in some extra practice.

No matter how early he went however, Cluxton just kept beating him to it.

"What I didn't allow for was Clucko being more dedicated than anyone else. He was always there before me, slotting over balls from the 45.

"I was hoping to be able to stand out by my sheer and immense commitment. It was as though he knew what my plan was and just kept raising the stakes," wrote Leonard.

With former Dublin goalkeeping coach Gary Matthews he regularly practised his kicking with a 600g ball instead of the regular 450g balls and that brought improvement to distance and accuracy.

The debate over whether he is the most influential player of the modern era can perhaps best be framed by the introduction and planned introduction of playing rule changes and match protocols to counter what he does.

They may not be a direct reaction to Cluxton's work but the introduction of a mark for a caught kick-out between the two 45-metre lines has a link to his propensity for shorter kick-outs into the path of receivers running into space, which developed during the middle of the 2000s.

His ability to pivot quickly around the ball when it is placed opens up his range of options quicker than any other player.

He wasn't the first to take a short kick-out by any means but he was the first to really perfect the tactic.

But the point about Cluxton's kick-outs is their accuracy, even over a longer distance, as testified by the second-halves of the 2013 and 2016 (replay) All-Ireland finals against Mayo.

With the research and squeeze on his kick-out throughout this decade, he has improvised by sometimes placing them behind their point of origin on the 13-metre line, into the corners, to really make the pitch bigger and exploit the rule that calls only for kick-outs to travel 13 metres in distance. But the same committee that introduced the mark is now proposing that kick-outs must cross the 20-metre line before they can be collected, which will significantly restrict the target area.

Administrators moved three years ago to have only neutral 'ball boys' at championship matches, thereby slowing down the feed and denying the silver service enjoyed by goalkeepers who had their own retrievers behind them.

Dublin and Cluxton weren't alone in this but it was a point noted by Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice after the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin.

As an illustration of his speed of thought, in that particular game Cluxton was able to retrieve the ball after a Kerry wide, get it on the tee and despatch it 70 metres safely into Diarmuid Connolly's arms in just 12 seconds.

How often have Dublin scored within 15 to 20 seconds of their goalkeeper despatching a kick-out?

As he reaches another milestone it's fair to suggest that while he is not responsible for the shift in the way the modern game is played his fingerprints are all over it.

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