Friday 20 September 2019

Season of perfection still sees Cluxton fall short

From a shot-stopping perspective it was Stephen Cluxton’s finest seaons for many years. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
From a shot-stopping perspective it was Stephen Cluxton’s finest seaons for many years. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In the space of just over 90 seconds of this year's All-Ireland football final we got a snapshot as to why, all season, it was arguably the highest standard of goalkeeping from two protagonists that there has been in recent times.

First up was Stephen Cluxton, five-time All-Star winner and considered the greatest goalkeeper of this or any other generation.

Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke was close to perfect this year. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke was close to perfect this year. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Standing tall in the 42nd minute as Andy Moran slipped a pass to Jason Doherty to exploit a gap in the Dublin defence, Cluxton parried the Burrishoole man's powerful drive before conceding a free in the scramble for the rebound.

Dublin were a point clear at that moment and it felt pivotal, not just in his team's push for a third successive All-Ireland title but in a private battle for the season's No 1 position. Once again Cluxton's capacity to make difficult saves look easy had manifested.

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But the hum around Croke Park from the moment had barely receded when it rose again, this time at the Canal End where David Clarke spread his legs to prevent Paul Mannion who had loomed through after shaking off Brendan Harrison.

Mannion was further out than Doherty but Clarke had advanced a sufficient distance to narrow the angle and while Mannion followed up with a point, the sense that Clarke had kept Mayo in contention was palpable.

That was the story of their summer, one blockbuster save followed by another.

When it came to entangling all the evidence at this year's PwC All-Star football selection meeting, however, Clarke had prevailed over Cluxton for the second successive year, the volume of the work he had to do to keep Mayo alive so often this summer carrying sufficient weight.

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There was little between them, tight calls with every headline.

For the record, my vote as a selector went to Cluxton, marginally. Last year I was happy to support Clarke despite his demotion for the All-Ireland final on the basis of saves made against Kildare in a qualifier, Tyrone twice in an All-Ireland semi-final, Tipperary (Josh Keane) and Brian Fenton twice in the drawn All-Ireland final.

Cluxton's kick-outs were hugely influential in the replay but his troubles coming up to half-time against Kerry were a factor.

This season, however, he was as close to perfection as he has ever been in dealing with everything he had to do. The trouble for him was, so too was Clarke. When Mayo pushed up on Cluxton's kick-out in the first half and he was forced to go long Dublin suffered but Aidan O'Shea's tour de force, with support from Seamus O'Shea and Tom Parsons, contributed heavily to that too.

It was hard to recall him making many mistakes. His first kick-out against a Tyrone team that had opted to push up on him in the first half of their All-Ireland semi-final travelled across the halfway line with laser-like precision to find Niall Scully who sent James McCarthy away to win the free for Dean Rock's opening point. For sure, it helped to scramble Tyrone's thinking subsequently on how high to press.

Dublin conceded just two championship goals to Lee Keegan in the All-Ireland final and Kildare's Paddy Brophy in the Leinster final but apart from that Doherty save he also denied Tyrone's Peter Harte from a penalty in the All-Ireland semi-final and Monaghan's Jack McCarron in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

The argument can be made that because these saves came so late in those games that they were inconsequential but that shouldn't diminish the quality and surely, in those cases, the pressure is off the striker anyway. In the case of the Monaghan game, McCarron had all the advantages from such close range.

Cluxton's save from Kildare's Daniel Flynn in the early stages of the Leinster final brought to four the number he made in the championship.

But his all-round handling was just so assured. He was pressed into action to deal with 15 aerial balls in six championship games and did so successfully with all 15.

In the closing moments of the All-Ireland final he was a safe haven when Dublin sought to run down the clock after, ironically, Clarke had booted a kick-out over the sideline to hand them precious possession.

But with four more games to play Clarke's worksheet, naturally, stretched longer. There was his magnificent save against Jack Barry in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final at such a key moment while his block from David Moran that led to Johnny Buckley's goal should also be acknowledged.

In the replay, there was a double save from Stephen O'Brien and Paul Geaney as Kerry were denied at the Hill 16 end in the second half. Again the timing was crucial.

In earlier rounds Clarke's save in Limerick from Cork's Tomás Clancy also stands out while he saved a penalty against Derry late in their first round qualifier.

Dropped

His kick-outs, the reason he was dropped for the 2016 All-Ireland final replay, improved steadily too, even in despatching from short range. He had his difficulties finding targets against Galway in Salthill and against Kerry in the first half of the drawn All-Ireland semi-final when a poor delivery of a free handed Kerry a point.

There is no doubt that during Mayo's seven-match league campaign Clarke was magnificent too.

He saved penalties from Kerry's David Moran in Tralee and Dublin's Paddy Andrews in Croke Park, following up to block Andrews from the rebound in quick succession. There was a double save from Enda Smith in the league match against Roscommon and a trio of great saves against Monaghan on the opening night.

In the closing stages of the league game against Tyrone he made some vital interventions.

As part of the All-Star selection process teams are submitted at the end of the league and, on that count, Clarke was my choice.

But Cluxton had many fine league moments too, saving twice from close range in the Mayo league match, brilliantly tipping over from Kerry's Paul Geaney in Tralee, doing something similar from Shane Killoran against Roscommon and then denying Tadhg Morley in the league final against Kerry. From a shot-stopping perspective, it was Cluxton's best season for many years.

To be omitted out for a second successive year will disappoint many Dublin supporters particularly given the overall game management he brought. But both were as worthy as two goalkeepers have ever been and it could never be an outrage that one was excluded at the other's expense.

What Mayo gained last night in Clarke they feel they have lost with the failure of Tom Parsons and Kevin McLoughlin to make the team.

Feature

McLoughlin or Ciarán Kilkenny looked a better 'fit' for right half-forward - his passing and high quality scores in his last two games a real stand-out feature but Dean Rock's trio of goals in earlier games and his second-half All-Ireland final performance, culminating in his match-winning pressure free, prompted an accommodation with colleague Paul Mannion selected at right corner-forward.

Like the hurling team, the footballers are chosen from the four All-Ireland semi-finalists, Kerry and Tyrone both picking up one each. Perhaps Colm Cavanagh could have been chosen in defence given his repertoire of blocks and interceptions in a sweeping role but the volume of kick-outs he won and the four points he scored - including against Dublin - suggested a more conventional midfield role than he has operated in recent years.

Parsons operated at a very high level in Mayo's last four games particularly and is, arguably, the toughest outfield omission.

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