Tuesday 17 September 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Cluxton the only current Dub with case for making all-time team'

Overall squad strength more central to success story than individual brilliance

No 1 Pioneer: Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton has a case to make the best Gaelic football team of all-time, unlike most of his colleagues. Photo: Sportsfile
No 1 Pioneer: Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton has a case to make the best Gaelic football team of all-time, unlike most of his colleagues. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

By 7.30 on Saturday evening, Jim Gavin and his squad will either be perched on a previously unconquered summit as five-in-a-row All-Ireland champions or become the sixth team in football and hurling to find that the gods have made four successive titles a cut-off point.

In historic terms, that's quite a difference, but even if Dublin lose it won't diminish their extraordinary achievement in winning six of eight All-Irelands between 2011 and 2018.

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A win would open doors to a new world, sharpening the focus on them as individuals and their specific roles in the making of the most successful squad in GAA history.

Not that they need to win to be regarded as a special group. But how special?

How many of them will come to be regarded as among the best individual players of all time, as opposed to being members of the best squad?

The GAA marked two milestones - Centenary year in 1984 and the new Millennium in 2000 - by selecting the best football and hurling teams in the Association's history.

If that were revisited now, who would push for inclusion? Kilkenny hurlers (11 All-Irelands, including a four-in-a-row) and Dublin football (chasing their seventh All-Ireland and a five-in-a-row) would certainly expect to be represented.

Henry Shefflin, DJ Carey, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Noel Hickey and Michael Fennelly all have claims in hurling, although probably only Shefflin or Carey and Walsh or Delaney would make it.

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Dublin footballers don't have as many contenders and that won't change even if they win the five-in-a-row, although it might in a few years' time.

In fact, Stephen Cluxton, Bernard Brogan, Jack McCaffrey and Brian Fenton are probably the only ones who would come under consideration now.

The latter pair's careers still have a long way to go, so they will have more opportunities to strengthen their case. Despite his excellence over several seasons, Brogan wouldn't dislodge, Mikey Sheehy, Tom Langan or Kevin Heffernan, the trio who comprised the full-forward line on the Teams of the Century and the Millennium.

McCaffrey is likely to be a serious contender for the all-time team at the end of his career, but for now Seán Murphy, who played for Kerry for a decade in the 1950s-'60s and Martin O'Connell, Mr Versatile in a 15-season career with Meath in the 1980s-'90s, fill the wing-back positions.

That leaves Cluxton as Dublin's top contender for inclusion on the all-time team.

Dan O'Keeffe, who played for Kerry for 17 years in the 1930s-40s, was chosen as goalkeeper on the Centenary and Millennium teams, so he's the man Cluxton would have to displace. Comparing players from decades so far apart is the ultimate in inexact science, but it's still an interesting exercise.

In the case of goalkeepers, it's even more difficult. In O'Keeffe's time, goalkeepers were subject to the same rules as outfield players when it came to picking the ball off the ground.

Plus, of course, goalkeepers rarely took kick-outs until the late 1960s.

Even when they embraced that responsibility, the basic approach didn't change very much, with long kicking remaining the top priority.

John O'Leary recalled how Kevin Heffernan, generally regarded as one of the most innovative coaches, kept his advice brief and to the point before his 19-year-old 'keeper made his championship debut against Offaly in the 1980 Leinster final.

"Stop the shots, drive your kick-outs as far as you can and keep talking to the defenders," said Heffo, having only told O'Leary he would be playing when they arrived in the dressing-room before the game.

Cluxton's detailed work on re-starts has led to a seismic change and a stage has now been reached where goalkeepers are being judged as much by their kick-outs as their shot-stopping ability.

Indeed, that emphasis may well have cost Mayo the 2016 All-Ireland title when they dropped David Clarke, the most consistent shot-stopper since John O'Leary, for the replay against Dublin on the basis that Robert Hennelly had a better kick-out. We all know how that ended.

Going back over 50 years, I would rank Clarke, O'Leary, Fergal Byron, Charlie Nelligan, Martin Furlong, Paddy Cullen, Brian McAlinden, Billy Morgan and Johnny Geraghty as better shot-stoppers than Cluxton, yet he has a very solid case to be regarded as the best goalkeeper of all time.

That's because of how he has expanded the role into something far more than the name suggests.

The next big all-time time selections will be in 2034 (GAA's 150th anniversary), by which time Cluxton is likely to be the goalkeeping choice, unless of course some other No 1 phenomenon arrives on the scene in the interim.

Replay must prompt rethink on scheduling

The GAA may have decided on one course of action, but fate took a different view, opting to send the football final to a replay.

Consequently, big club action in Dublin and Kerry had to be deferred in order to give Jim Gavin and Peter Keane a clear run for Saturday's showdown.

Barring a second replay, it still means that the championship will be completed by mid-September. What was wrong with that in the first place?

The decision to tighten the schedule, including bringing the finals back to the third Sunday in August and the first Sunday in September, was designed to help clubs.

Why then are so many championships still at the quarter-final stage or even further back?

Elimination from the football championship started in early June, yet several of those counties are no more advanced than those who were knocked out much later.

Bringing both All-Ireland finals back to September needs to be revisited for promotional purposes.


Portumna decline gathering pace

Enjoy the good times because you never know what the future holds and how things might turn.

Portumna, home club of Joe Canning, were a force of nature on the club hurling front for several years, but all has changed.

Having lost all four games in the current Galway SH championship, they look set for a relegation struggle even if they beat Tommy Larkins in their final group game next Sunday.

It's not just the defeats by Turloughmore, Castlegar, Liam Mellows and St Thomas' that comes as a surprise, but the extent of them. Beaten All-Ireland finalists, St Thomas' hammered them by 6-26 to 0-19 in their most recent game, leaving their average losing margin at 15 points per game. They have scored only 2-57 in four games while conceding 13-85.

It's a long way from the glory days of four All-Ireland titles in 2006-'08-'09-'14, taking them into joint second place with Birr, behind Ballyhale Shamrocks (7) on the roll of honour.

Irish Independent

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