Thursday 18 July 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Stephen Cluxton, Dublin's king of the hill, will continue to be the best there has ever been'

Stephen Cluxton. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

HE is the eternal father of the city chapel, seminal goalkeeping revolutionary, Dublin’s king of the Hill.

Stephen Cluxton, a triumph of longevity and beacon of consistency, among the most vivid threads in the GAA’s 135-year tapestry, a subversive who radically transformed the goalkeeper’s job description, stands once more, as so often before, at the gates of football history.

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On Sunday against  Cluxton will walk in virgin snow: The first player to appear in 100 championship matches.

As timeless as the pyramids of Giza, a wonder of the sporting world.

When Cluxton became a Dublin made man, the Twin Towers still loomed over Manhattan’s downtown.  Nobody in Ireland had ever heard of a tiny Pacific outpost called Saipan.  Brian Cody was a young manager with one All-Ireland to his name.  There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhone.

And, the clincher, final indisputable proof that the world he entered on May 27 2001 (a 2-19 to 1-13 victory over Longford) spun on a different axis: Dublin, subservient and adrift, had not won a Leinster title in six years.

Nobody has played a more central role in their transformation to powerhouse standard-setter.

Without him, the delirium of Sky Blue summers, the city’s enchanted centre-of-the-universe era, might have been no more than a wild, unfulfilled imagining.

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On Dublin’s Mount Rushmore, his stoic, defiant features rise above even the greatest of those – John O’Leary and Paddy Cullen - who went before him.

Sire of the goalkeeping upheaval, his mastery of the kick-out elevated those with the Number One shirt on their back into precision missiles, quarterbacks, masters of strategy.

He is a titan of achievement, one who towers alone.  Alongside those 14 Leinster medals, sit six All-Irelands (a record-smashing five as captain) and five league titles.

Some things are forever in the Big City:  Anna Livia’s waters gurgling down from the Wicklow Hills; Luke Kelly’s voice as an immortal soundtrack; and Cluxton, standing sentinel in front of Hill 16, Croke Park’s vast green acreage stretching out as his alley of dreams.

Steve-O: Familiar yet unknowable, ever-present yet elusive, a magnificent, navy-uniformed chimera.

For 18 years, a football infinity, lean times giving way to sustained days of plenty, he has been a city landmark.  Constant, reassuring, steadfast and indomitable.

Dublin’s enduring boy of summer.

Contemptuous of celebrity, enslaved only by the pursuit of excellence, he became The Transformer:  A man who radically metamorphosed an entire sport.

A daring soloist, Cluxton rose above the choir.  It is hardly an exaggeration to label him the most innovative footballer of the 21st century.

He redefined, hugely expanded the goalkeeper’s role:  No longer just an extinguisher of fires, but the kindling from which was born a new and brilliant flame.

Goalkeeper as creative hub, first line of attack.

His kick-outs, uranium-enriched, carrying the deadly payload of his laser-controlled accuracy, became Dublin’s nuclear weapon, gifted the city superpower status.

He compelled his peers to refine their game or disappear to the margins.  The kick-out replaced shot-stopping as a goalkeeper’s must-have skill. Opposing coaches scampered to devise tactics that might limit the influence of Dublin’s stoic, straight-backed point-guard.

It was entirely fitting that in 2011, when Dublin, after 16 years, found themselves On Canaan’s Side, it was Cluxton who kicked the point that propelled them to paradise.

That last gasp winning score to settle a breathless, epic conclusion to that All-Ireland final against Kerry felt like recognition from the stars.  That here was the player who did so much to compose the route map to deliverance.

His ability to guide a pass into the few inches of airspace immediately above Brian Fenton or James McCarthy or Brian Howard or Michael Darragh Macauley is miraculous.

Cluxton, even approaching his 38th birthday, has all the traditional requirements of his trade – fast-twitch muscle fibers, elasticity, superior hand-to-eye coordination and bravery.

But, for many, many years, it was his distribution that set him apart.

Perhaps the greatest testament to a freakish career, is that his misfires, like rain in the Sahara, are so easily recalled precisely because they are so rare.

Place his career under a microscope and still only a very few blemishes are visible.

A high-ball against Galway last year, ten minutes against Kerry a few summers ago, quickly righted wobbles in the company of Fermanagh and Mayo, a sending off that assisted Armagh 16 years hence.

He doesn’t do fuss or distraction or celebrity:  There is the game, 70-odd minutes in the arena. Nothing else.

First to training, relentlessly pursuing improvement.  A setter of standards; by his deeds a leader.

Jim Gavin’s dressing-room is populated by so many hall of fame footballers. Yet, even among all those greats, Cluxton might be unique.  Because he seems close to irreplaceable.

The moment he takes off his gloves for the last time – his predecessor John O’Leary believes he can continue until he is 40 – Dublin will be hugely diminished.

On Sunday, in his 100th championship game, Cluxton won’t make a speech or strike a pose.

Rather, he will keep-on doing what he has always done:  Striving for the summit of achievement.

And, being the best there has ever been.

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