The Ryan line to the Cluxton factor
Former Dublin dynamo outlines how pioneering goalkeeper helped him thrive in midfield cauldron
When the question of 'who is the Tiger Woods of Gaelic football?' was put to Paul Flynn last year, the Dublin star had no hesitation in nominating team-mate Stephen Cluxton.
"For me, it's Stephen Cluxton," Flynn told www.irishgolfdesk.com. "He has been an amazing leader of our team for a long time. He has made his position his own and been the best ever in that position. To do that, it's incomparable."
Flynn is one of many to benefit from his radar-like kick-outs drifting into space from half-forward and it's hard to argue with his musings.
Phrases like 'conceding the kick-out' and 'press' weren't part of the football vernacular until Cluxton revolutionised what is expected from a goalkeeper.
Any time a 'keeper nails his kick-outs - a lá Monaghan's Rory Beggan against Tyrone or Donegal's Shaun Patton against Derry - there's immediate comparisons to the Parnells maestro, who has delivered consistent brilliance throughout his days in sky blue.
Much like a game of copycat in school, many have tried to replicate his style but he still stands tallest at 36 in his 18th championship season.
Cluxton is judged on a totally different scale to others where one stray kick-out - a rarity - is a point deducted from his player rating.
Six-time Leinster SFC winner Shane Ryan was privy to Cluxton's development during his days with the Dubs and despite being only 5ft 10in tall, the Naomh Mearnóg dynamo was able to cut the mustard at midfield.
All-Star midfielder in 2008, Ryan thrived in a time when the battle in the engine room was all about who soared highest, until Cluxton changed the rules. Without him, Ryan would have been a small fish in a big pond.
"When I started playing I was corner-back and if you look around at midfielders like John McDermott for Meath and (Niall) Buckley in Kildare. They were massive men and there was not a hope that someone like me would have a chance competing unless I run," Ryan said.
"If you have someone who could give you the ball to where you're running to, all the better, otherwise you'd look pretty stupid."
Given Jim Gavin's military-like precision, Cluxton is the perfect general to lead Dublin into battle and has skippered the Boys in Blue to a record four All-Ireland titles, including three in a row. Nerveless under the greatest pressure, his kick-outs are a comfort blanket and when the thermostat is turned up, he keeps Dublin cool.
"To win All-Irelands and especially to win as much as Dublin won in the last number of years, you need every part functioning really well. He sets the pace and he sets a tone," Ryan said as AIG announced sponsorship of the Dublin Masters football team this week.
"Teams could be after making an attack and five seconds later the ball is being kicked out. Not only is it being kicked out, but it's kicked out directly to one of the Dublin players who is now going at 100 miles an hour down the pitch.
"So teams don't get a breather, basically. The comfort that you get as a player knowing that once the ball is kicked, whether it's a point or wide, you'll have possession again in five or ten seconds. It's massively important.
"He's got a radar foot and he can pick out wherever he wants. You could see a few years ago when Kerry sucker-punched Dublin with a goal or two just before half-time.
"When Clucko makes a rare mistake, it's plain for all to see because it hardly ever happens. It's like, 'What's going on here?'"
Even during the noughties, Ryan outlines how time was devoted to kick-out strategies but he imagines that has increased rapidly in recent years as they perfect their restarts - another term coined as a result of Cluxton's influence.
Regularly, it's kicking into space than a specific target with Ryan marvelling in the telepathy of the group.
"I can't speak for lads now. I know when I was playing it was more a case of there was no hope in hell of me competing for a kick-out with 6ft 4in lads," the former dual star explained.
"But now, it's not just one person that he picks out, he has several options. I would say that's just a product of time on the training pitch and seeing who's free. There's probably always two or three different options that he has.
"I'd say players have it down to as much as a little nod or eye contact and he'll know who to give it to. And they'll know instinctively where it's going to go. Is it going to bounce into me? Is it going to come to my left, right or into space? They just have that understanding."
Carlow sharpshooter Paul Broderick spoke this week about trying to decode Cluxton's kick-outs during last year's Leinster SFC quarter-final clash with the Dubs, remarking that he'd "never heard so many calls, they were numbers."
"I was baffled by the amount of calls that they had," Broderick told 'OTB AM'. "A lot of it was numbers and while it was still only 15 on 15, the way they do it allows them to confuse their opponents for a little bit longer. They probably change those calls every game."
Cluxton and the Dubs continue to reinvent themselves but Ryan is hopeful that whenever the end does come that some of his "apprentices are going to carry on everything that he's doing and are going to play the same way".
Ryan was midfield when the Dubs got a scare from Longford in Pearse Park 12 years ago but tomorrow's semi-final opponents are unlikely to have an answer for the five-time All-Star as he makes his 93rd championship appearance in the Croke Park contest.
Should the Dubs make it eight Leinster titles in succession later this month, he would hold a unique distinction. As Dublin great Vinnie Murphy remarked this week, if he wins his 14th provincial crown, he'll go third on the overall provincial roll of honour and surpass Kildare's tally of 13.
Worryingly for others, there's no end in sight.