Sunday 8 December 2019

Stephen Cluxton is our Dublin player of Millennium: 'A leader and innovator; the on-field director for Jim Gavin'

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton salutes Hill 16
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton salutes Hill 16

Frank Roche

AT the start of this week, The Herald’s GAA Desk set out on a mission: to rank the top 50 Dublin footballers of this millennium.

In other words, to assess all the inter-county 'ballers' who have donned Sky Blue in championship combat from the year 2000 until the present day. That's two full decades, 20 long seasons - a mammoth undertaking.

But also, as it transpired, a thoroughly enjoyable challenge.

Why? Because the capital has produced a conveyor belt of thrilling footballers through the hard times and nearly years of the noughties - and far more of the above during the past decade of unrivalled success.

So while it has been head-wrecking at times, trying to juggle players into what we deem their best chart position, it has also been great fun. Because that is what good footballers do: they keep you entertained and they keep you guessing.

If Dublin's 16-year All-Ireland famine had extended to 24 years and counting, this exercise would have been pretty futile ... but the Blue wave that has swept all before it since 2011 means that we're dealing with a glut of heavyweight contenders.

See the top 50 here:

So, who is it? You have doubtless figured that out from the graphic that accompanies this article.

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Stephen Cluxton - the most capped Gaelic footballer in history; the most decorated Dub of them all; a leader and innovator; the on-field director of Jim Gavin Operations; king of the kickout and, lest we forget, a dab hand in the art of goal prevention - is our number one choice.

Then again, Cluxton has been Dublin's No 1 for almost the entirety of this assessment period. He was, we'll be so bold to argue, the only logical choice.

We won't remotely presume that the rest of our Top 50 has met with universal approval. How could it?

After all, this is our subjective choice - albeit we have predicated all of our decisions on objective considerations.

Natural talent - that compelling mix of technique and vision that makes you sit bolt upright in your Hogan Stand seat and go 'Wow!' out loud - has obviously been a major consideration.

But not the only one, and not even the most important one.

Consistency, in our eyes, was king.

Thus, we were craving players who have sustained a high level of performance throughout their careers - the longer the better, with extra marks for those who reserved their best form for the biggest games of all.

Think of those white-knuckle August and September rides against Kerry and Mayo this past decade - if you have excelled in that high-pressure combat zone, you will obviously score more highly.

Again, we must stress, this is a subjective business and we don't claim to have any patent on footballing wisdom.

However, The Herald has forensically followed the Dubs through every league and championship game since the turn of the century; that must count for something.

How else do you measure greatness?

Titles won is an obvious yardstick, and some stalwarts of the noughties might well have featured more prominently - if only they had been born a decade later.

On that score, Ciarán Whelan is the highest-placed on our list - at 16 - who has not won an All-Ireland SFC medal.

But such was Whelan's soaring influence that he still features ahead of many players who have supped from Sam on multiple occasions.

Some others who won an All-Ireland medal in ‘95 also make our top 50; but perhaps not as highly as you might have expected. That is because we only focussed on form graphs in this century, not the previous one ... and so the standout seasons of, say, Paul Curran and Dessie Farrell were not up for consideration.

Over the past four days, we revealed our choices from No 50 down to No 11.

Today it's the top ten; and it will be no surprise that they have all enjoyed their finest hours in this ultimate Decade of the Dubs.

Dean Rock, who became Dublin's second top scorer in history last September, clocks in at No 10 - due recognition for his prolific contribution from frees and from play during the Drive for Five.

Rock is the only top ten entrant with just two All Stars - the rest have anywhere between three and Cluxton's six.

All Star recognition, while the subjective choice of GAA journalists and a guaranteed source of annual controversy, is always a good barometer of a player's influence in any one year.

Likewise, to an even more elevated degree, Footballer of the Year ... although after much soul-searching and stats-trawling, we have plumped for James McCarthy, who has never won this award, at No 2.

Why? Because he has been an ever-present mainstay of all seven Dublin All-Ireland wins, excelling in different positions and often reserving his best for the biggest days.

Six Dubs have been named Footballer of the Year this decade. Whereas one of them, 2013 winner Michael Darragh Macauley, is ranked at No 13, the other five all feature more prominently.

They are, in ascending order, Alan Brogan (2011) at No 6; Jack McCaffrey (2015) at No 5; Bernard Brogan (2010) at No 4; Brian Fenton (2018) at No 3 .... all of which leaves one position for one outstanding candidate.

Stephen Cluxton, 2019 Footballer of the Year, and a Dub for all seasons.

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