Wednesday 13 November 2019

Strong, silent type lets his achievements speak for themselves

Stephen Cluxton will enjoy his Seamus Darby moment but you won't hear the star goalkeeper mentioning it in public, writes Damian Lawlor

A FORTNIGHT before last Sunday's All-Ireland senior football final, the Dublin players were asked to compile their pen pictures.

When it came to detailing his honours, Stephen Cluxton left a blank at the end of his profile. On top of winning seven Leinster senior titles, the Parnells man has also won three All Stars, but there was no mention of them. When asked why, Cluxton said there was no point making a big deal over personal accolades. It should be about the team.

Cluxton has always been a hard man to second-guess.

Anyone observing him moments after kicking last weekend's winning point would have sworn he had just cost his team the title. Tomás ó Sé walked up and handed him the match ball, a touch of class from one of football's most naturally gifted defenders. Cluxton took it, walked three yards and sent it towards the Hogan Stand. It might resurface on eBay someday.

He disappeared into the tunnel, missing the presentation, and only re-emerged after being persuaded by team-mates. In the dressing room, Marty Morrissey asked him for a few words and while Cluxton greeted him warmly, he turned down the request, saying that he would be no good at that sort of thing. Morrissey persisted but Cluxton shrugged that 'he might do something if Pat Gilroy did it with him'. Later, at the team banquet, the RTE man and the goalkeeper met again but nothing materialised.

That night, the GAA world was lit up with talk of his heroics and subsequent disappearing act.

"He's done it before -- that's just the way he is," says Cluxton's Parnells team-mate MJ Tierney. "Stephen keeps away from the media and would have guessed that everyone was looking for him last Sunday. Chances are he headed off to avoid all the fuss."

They say Cluxton has never done an interview but he gave this writer an interview following Dublin's defeat of Offaly in the 2001 Leinster Championship.

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Back then, journalists were still allowed access to dressing rooms but, despite dirty looks from Dublin backroom members, Cluxton politely agreed to a few words. Not expecting the third secret of Fatima, his answers to some routine questions were surprisingly enlightening.

"I might look like I'm enjoying it out there but that's not the case," he said. "It's torture at times. Just because I'm roaring at the lads doesn't mean I'm as confident as it looks. Only for the lads egging me on, the likes of John O'Leary and Davy Byrne, things surely wouldn't be going as well as they are. John was a hero for Dublin, that's what I've got to live up to now. It's a dream that other lads my age would have, it's a great position to be in. The Dublin backroom seem to know exactly what to say to me at exactly the right times. I was really nervous against Offaly but they settled me down."

That exchange hardly scarred him for life so God knows where his fear or dislike of the press stems from. On, he said that staying away from the media was the best advice he ever received.

"He's just not into that," Tierney adds. "I lived with him last year, there were five of us from Parnells in the one house, and I remember slagging him about when the Dublin team used to walk to the Hill and line up with their arms linked.

"He slagged me back but he was really uncomfortable with that stuff in front of the Hill as well, he used to hate it, so it's not just the media -- he'd just rather keep the head down and work for the team. He'd never build himself or the team up and probably hates when others do. He's just a normal guy like the rest of us, goes to the cinema and hangs out with his close childhood friends and girlfriend, simple as that."

Early in his life it didn't look like he would attract such a spotlight. He played soccer for Tolka Rovers, enjoyed badminton too, but hadn't really struck up much of a reputation as a Gaelic footballer.

In his mid-teens, however, that changed. His school, St David's in Artane, played a Dublin Colleges semi-final with regular goalkeeper Robert O'Connor unavailable and while Cluxton was two years younger than most of the squad, and better known as a soccer goalie, they put him in. He performed excellently and it catapulted him into the inter-county frame.

In 1999, he was drafted onto the Dublin minor squad but only as third-choice 'keeper. Yet, by the year's end, he'd ousted Vinny Galvin to claim his place for the All-Ireland semi-final against Down, performing admirably again.

It's now 10 years since his senior debut and in that time he has played 55 championship games. He has conceded just 31 goals in the process, the five-goal rout by Meath last year and the three scored by Tyrone two years before that are the only occasions he has been beaten more than twice. His league stats are equally impressive with only 22 goals conceded in 52 league appearances.

Teams now see Cluxton as a threat from placed balls -- he scored 0-12 this summer, the side's third-highest scorer -- and they recognise that he's the instigator of Dublin attacks with short kick-outs and restarts, helping a team with a poor record of winning primary possession in midfield.

Away from the pitch, he is a strong Manchester United supporter while team-mates say that he always reverts to his old mates, preferring to stay in their company, rather than joining in sessions after games.

"He is the only Parnells lad on the Dublin team whereas a lot of the rest of us might have gone to school with each other and would all hang around and socialise together," says one Dublin player. "Stephen is the ultimate team man but he does his own thing to a large extent when the games and training are over."

Perhaps the lowest career moment was the 2003 All-Ireland qualifiers when he clashed with Armagh's Stevie McDonnell and was dismissed. Just as he was walking off the field he turned around and shook hands with a bemused McDonnell. His team was ahead at that stage but subsequently lost and afterwards, when he spoke to RTE in the heat of the moment, manager Tommy Lyons felt the team would have won only for that dismissal. TV pundit Joe Brolly questioned if he should ever be allowed wear a Dublin jersey again.

The episode upset Cluxton greatly. Reports suggested that he walked home alone from Croke Park without a gearbag. Many people anticipated a lengthy ban and amidst this uncertainty St Patrick's Athletic, among other soccer clubs, seemingly chased his signature. Ultimately, he received a one-month ban and soon returned to the Dubs fold.

In 2005, an ankle operation threatened to halt his development while in the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final one of his normally accurate passes went astray, ended up in Kieran Donaghy's hands and ultimately cost the Dubs a point in a contest they only lost by two.

But those are blips in a simply outstanding career, capable of continuing for another five or six years at least.

He has also represented his country in the International Rules series, winning Player of the Tournament in 2004 but a fear of flying, however, has prevented him from participating in this year's event Down Under, although there's talk he might come around for October's test matches.

Now one of the most recognisable faces in Irish sport, he is in massive demand for commercial and endorsement engagements but will most likely decline all offers. Last week Mick O'Keeffe from Pembroke Communications estimated Cluxton could make in excess of €30,000 from endorsements this year alone.

But potential corporate suitors will surely be wasting their time. Instead, the science teacher at St Vincent's, Glasnevin, whose sister Avril won a ladies football All-Ireland title last year, might do some charity work and will maintain his low profile.

Unfazed by that long march up to the placed ball last Sunday, Cluxton's dramatics can now be placed alongside Seamus Darby's exploits of 1982 in the GAA annals. He'll shudder at that thought.

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