Saturday 20 October 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Stephen Cluxton's greatness is all we need to know about him

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup
Stephen Cluxton Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

The Twin Towers were still standing in New York when Stephen Cluxton first took up this gig, so you'd think we'd be getting to know him by now, wouldn't you?

But we're not even close. As he racked up his 100th National League appearance in Castlebar last, the truth is he's nearly as elusive as Lord Lucan. I doubt the statistic means much to Cluxton. I mean I, personally, have no idea how many league games I've played and he doesn't strike me as the kind who keeps track of this stuff.

I've met him twice, had one telephone conversation with the man and, on some level, maybe that gives me as much insight into him as most people ever get. Which isn't much. He's the perfect representative of Jim Gavin's philosophy that the outside world should be kept at arm's length, that what happens in the bubble must stay there.

Cluxton's the only man in history to captain a team to four All-Ireland wins, but he might as well be a rumour.

And I can't help but admire him for that. There's a thousand different questions you'd love to hear him answer, but his prerogative is not to entertain them. Good luck to him on that. He's the greatest goalkeeper I've seen and, quite possibly, the most important Gaelic footballer.

So maybe it doesn't really matter that I'd give anything to read a candid interview with him, focusing on stuff like that 2003 qualifier game against Armagh when he was sent off for throwing a kick at Stephen McDonnell.

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton is congratuled by John McCarthy after 2017 win
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton is congratuled by John McCarthy after 2017 win

Dublin's manager at the time, Tommy Lyons, didn't mince his words after. More or less said what Cluxton did had been ridiculous and that they'd have won with 15 on the field.

Dublin, after all, were a man up at the time of the incident. In the RTé studio, Joe Brolly labelled Cluxton "a disgrace", questioning whether he should ever be allowed wear a Dublin jersey again.

What was he, 22, at the time?

If that wasn't going to test the man's mettle, nothing would. I suspect the cold nervelessness he shows today probably comes from having banked that kind of setback as just a kick in the teeth to be educated by.

There have been other ropey days too. Like the '05 All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Tyrone when he had a kick-out intercepted for a goal.

Like the '07 semi-final against Kerry when he came soloing out to his own '45 only to give away possession to Kieran Donaghy for a killer score.

I'm convinced all of those experiences have made him a better, more ruthless player. A harder person maybe. You think of that roasting he got for that sending-off in '03 and look at how, 15 years later, he absolutely dictates what way Dublin play. That's one phenomenal journey.

I mean I've heard a story that after 'Pillar' Caffrey had been alternating his goalkeepers for the O'Byrne Cup in '08, Cluxton made clear he wouldn't be hanging around just to play every second game in the National League.

Cluxton during the All-Ireland Senior Football Champions Homecoming at Smithfield
Cluxton during the All-Ireland Senior Football Champions Homecoming at Smithfield

In his book, 'Dub Sub Confidential', Dublin's number two goalkeeper of the time, John Leonard, recalls going to Caffrey to enquire about his subsequent absence of game-time in the league only to be told "that's the way things are!"

And that story sets me thinking that I haven't the foggiest who Dublin's sub goalkeeper is today.

Listen, there's nothing I love more in football than the nostalgia for great players of the past, whether it's the wizards of skill or the raw, hard bastards.

But, in my lifetime, nobody has influenced the game more than Cluxton. You can talk about men like Gooch, Moynihan, Canavan, Joyce and Jordan, all guys I adored watching.

But over the last ten years, this man has done something I've never seen anybody else do.

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Aogán Ó Fearghail presents the Sam Maguire Cup to Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Aogán Ó Fearghail presents the Sam Maguire Cup to Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

He's changed the rules of the game, both figuratively speaking and literally. Put it this way. We now have goalkeeping coaches even at club level schooling people, predominantly, in the art of the kick-out.

The very rules of the game have been changed. We've had the introduction of a 'mark'. We have a stipulation that kick-outs must travel beyond the 21-yard line.

Why?

In my view, Cluxton's mastery of the kick-out has forced even the game's legislators to take a backward step. In the past, the first question you'd hear asked about a new goalkeeper would be, 'Is he a good shot-stopper?' Now it's, 'What are his kick-outs like?'

Only recently, there was talk in Kerry of maybe putting Bryan Sheehan in goal. That's because the goalkeeper is now seen as a virtual quarter-back. Cluxton is the reason.

I remember reading a line from Shane Ryan, who won an All-Star in '08 as Ciarán Whelan's midfield partner. Ryan was nearly unique as an inter-county midfielder, being well short of a six-footer in his socks. But he'd make these explosive dashes to the wing on Cluxton's kick-outs that became almost impossible to defend against.

And Ryan said he'd know exactly when to make the run, depending on how many steps his goalkeeper took.

You can push up on Cluxton's kick-outs all you like, but nine times out of ten he'll still find his target. Funny, there was a view that Kerry had pretty much cracked him in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final when, approaching half-time, two wayward Cluxton deliveries led to a brace of goals.

But Dublin still won that game with 22 scores to 16. And you know how many Cluxton kick-outs failed to find their men? Just those two.

The get-out clause for most goalkeepers under that kind of pressure is lamp it up the middle and blame your midfielders if it doesn't stick. This fella doesn't do that.

This fella's happy to dice with death all day. He never kicks randomly. There's always a specific target.

I see him as a bit of an oddball, but I mean that in the best sense. Because he's constantly challenging himself to be better. Nothing daunts him. Listen, every team that plays against Dublin today, their starting point is, 'How do we stop Cluxton?' He knows that too. I suspect he actually takes strength from it.

His ability to almost laser a ball reminds me a bit of Maurice Fitzgerald. I used dread playing against that man in Kerry training matches because, no matter how close I was to my man, my first instinct was to panic once Maurice had the ball. You see, I just couldn't trust him not to come up with something that'd expose me. He could play a pass that 99 out of a hundred players wouldn't even see, never mind undertake.

Cluxton can do that too. He makes you look silly.

He did it to me in my last game against the Dubs, that cracking All-Ireland semi-final of 2013. I'd gone bombing forward, taking a couple of clatters along the way, only to fist the ball wide of the Canal End goal. Well, didn't the clatters knock the stuffing out of me and I hadn't enough diesel left to get back into position fast enough.

I was shouting as I turned back, because there was Diarmuid Connolly in glorious isolation and, sure enough, this ball went zinging over my head with the trajectory of a jet.

"Ah, you dirty motherf****r," I roared. He'd nailed me.

One of the funniest things I've seen with Dublin was Jason Sherlock despatched last year to give Cluxton instruction against Mayo when the kick-outs were under stress.

I mean what could Jason honestly say to him that he didn't already know? Kick long? All that would tell him was that Dublin were losing their nerve on the line before he was even close.

Watching, I remember thinking that Jim Gavin must never have seen the golf movie, 'Tin Cup'.

Because Cluxton is the GAA's equivalent of the Kevin Costner character, Roy McAvoy, who absolutely refuses to play percentages.

It just goes against his DNA. When Cluxton's under the most extreme pressure, he sees it as a challenge, not an invitation to play safe.

One of the things I hate about covering a Dublin game from 'The Sunday Game' studio is how, so often, we miss his kick-outs.

You see, it's not just the opposition forwards he's ahead of, it's the TV producer. I've actually said it a few times inside that we should consider some kind of split-screen arrangement, with one camera never leaving Cluxton.

Because by the time we're done showing the action replay of a point or a wide, the ball is already on the opposition's '45. Lord Jesus, it drives me mad.

Cluxton is a one-off in my view, a modern-day phenomenon. I don't think there'll be another of his ilk in my lifetime. What has he got, five All-Stars? In my opinion, it should probably be ten.

I must admit I had to laugh last year when both himself and Mayo's David Clarke were nominated for Player of the Year, because to nominate just one or the other would have given away the All-Star goalkeeper.

Clarke eventually got the verdict. I'd have given it to Cluxton all day long.

Look, I could be wrong, but I think the fact he keeps such a low profile doesn't endear Cluxton to the media. One of the most interesting characters in Irish sport, but we know next to nothing about him. Like I've heard a story that after a Dublin All-Ireland win, one of his team-mates had to go into the dressing-room to ask him to come back out because Cluxton's father wanted a picture with his son.

Think about that.

And, for the record, I didn't seek him out to give him the ball after he'd nailed that free against us to win the 2011 All-Ireland.

He just happened to be the nearest Dub to me and, having the ball in my possession at the final whistle, I just instinctively handed it over. It could have been to anyone.

People felt I should have been insulted afterwards at the way he just kicked it away, but I didn't even see that happen.

And you know something? Even if I had, I'd nearly admire him more for doing it, because it told me this guy had no interest in the peripheral stuff, the glory element, the hype. Once the game was over, he just wanted out of there. He didn't need a memento.

But someone obviously got it into his head that it might have looked insulting to me.

It was the following Wednesday, me hardly knowing my arse from my elbow on the drive home from Killarney, when the phone rang in the car. "Look," he said to me, "I just wanted to say I didn't mean any offence by that."

My response was, "Jesus, Stephen, I didn't take any. Not a bit of it!" I thought it was decent of him to make that call because he didn't have to. It told me that there's a really genuine, human side to this fella that he doesn't see any need to advertise. His greatness is all he gives us.

We've no right to expect anything more.

Irish Independent

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