GAA Football

Stephen Cluxton: The keepers' keeper

 Goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton has become an icon for aspiring custodians across Ireland.
Picture by Seamus Loughran

IT’S more than a fan club. There must be a secret marble altar somewhere in the capital where fellow goalkeepers gather and pay homage to the great man.

Tomorrow, the inimitable Stephen Cluxton will play in his fourth All-Ireland final.

Not only did Cluxton revolutionise goalkeeping, he opened doors for others.

If it wasn’t for Cluxton re-imagining the role of a goalkeeper, we might never have heard of some of Ulster’s finest.

It would be fair to say Niall Morgan, Thomas Mallon and Raymond Galligan idolise the man who won the first of his five Allstars in 2002.

“In my opinion, he’s the greatest goalkeeper of all time,” says Derry ’keeper Mallon.

Irish News Ulster Allstar winner Raymond Galligan regards the Parnell’s clubman as “definitely the best-ever”.

Morgan doesn’t believe he would ever have played for the Tyrone senior team without Cluxton coming along.

“I started playing midfield for the club and still do,” says Morgan.

“I feel Stephen Cluxton gave me the chance to play for the county because he introduced the importance of the kick-out to Gaelic football.

“The goalkeeper position wasn’t always seen as a crucial position in the past. Cluxton made it a pivotal role in the team; he completely revolutionised it and allowed people with a longer kick to be more important to the game.”

The Tyrone ’keeper adds: “I played with the Tyrone minors and U21 as a goalkeeper but I never imagined getting on the Tyrone senior team because I always thought when I get to that age there’s always going to be somebody that plays goals for their club and is a more stable ’keeper, I suppose.”

Morgan was intrigued by Cluxton from a young age. So much so that he asked his Edendork club-mate Karl McGuckin, a house-mate of the Dublin ’keeper at the time, about arranging a training session between the pair.

“I was maybe 16 at the time,” says Morgan. 

“Karl asked him could I come down for a training session. Karl said that Cluxton said ‘no’.

“If a random 16-year-old from a county that’s two hours up the road asks to come down for a session, you wouldn’t believe him. That was the story. I did ask but I didn’t expect it to come to fruition.”

Last year, Morgan did meet Cluxton.

“I was in Copperface Jack’s one night,” laughs Morgan.

“It was after the International Rules. I asked him for a picture. That was about the height of it because you can imagine it was about three o’clock in the morning.

“But I spoke to him after the League final in Croke Park earlier this year. I’d my broken hand and he had the [Division One] trophy coming down the steps after making an acceptance speech and he stopped and asked me how I was.

“It was a really nice touch. He didn’t have to stop as he was bringing the trophy down to the rest of the team. From the reports you get of him, he is very quiet and serious but that’s not how I found him.”

Mallon is equally inspired by the phenomenon that is Stephen Cluxton.

The Loup man has studied every frame of the Dublin ’keeper’s career.

“There are so many TV angles nowadays and you can see the variation Cluxton has,” says the Derry net-minder.

“He can run up to the ball and in the last second he can change his mind and go the other road.

“With a lot of ’keepers you can see from their body position where they’re going to kick the ball.

“Paul Durcan was very good at it as well – changing the direction of their kick-out in the last second.”

Mallon adds: “In fairness to Dublin, their movement out the field does make Cluxton’s job a bit easier but it’s an art and Cluxton still has to make that pass.

“I was once told that kick-outs aren’t kick-outs any more – they’re possession re-starts. If you have five sideline balls you would at least want to win five of them, you want to be retaining possession.”

In recent years, Cavan’s Raymond Galligan has made the successful transition from outfield to keeping goal.

Another huge fan of Cluxton’s, Galligan believes the opposition fear the Dublin ’keeper’s kick-outs so much that they actually make his job easier.

“I’m not sure that it’s all down to Cluxton,” says Galligan.

“I watched a lot of their games this year and I’d say over 75 per cent of his kick-outs are actually no more than 20-25 metres.

“The fact that other teams have conceded the kick-outs to Dublin makes Cluxton’s job a lot easier. He’s definitely the best I’ve ever seen but his job has become a lot easier because teams aren’t contesting the kick-out.”

At times during last month’s All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry, the latter pressed up on Cluxton’s kick-outs and it almost paved the way to victory.

Just before half-time one of Cluxton’s short kick-outs was intercepted by Paul Geaney. The Kerry forward off-loaded to Donnchadh Walsh and Darran O’Sullivan finished to the net with Cluxton stranded.

A few minutes later, Cluxton conceded another major when Geaney out-jumped him to put Kerry in the driving seat.

“People have to remember that Cluxton has been there, done it,” says Galligan.

“He stood up to the plate when it’s mattered most. I’m sure he moved on pretty quickly from the All-Ireland semi-final and got a couple of good training sessions under his belt to get his confidence back up.

“And, in fairness, in the second half he came out and hit a lot of great kick-outs.”

Morgan adds: “I’m sure he’s had worse games than the All-Ireland semi-final. Everybody can have a bad game, but it’s great to have a bad game and win.

“If anything, Cluxton will be on top of his game because every time Dublin have a really big game he seems to step up even more.

“He has relinquished the free-taking duties to Dean Rock too and it’s given him more of an opportunity to focus on his own side of the game. The man’s an absolute legend and playing in another All-Ireland final won’t faze him.”

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Like Morgan, Mallon is convinced Cluxton used up all his mistakes against Kerry.

“I don’t think Mayo will get that mistake out of Cluxton on Sunday. I think you will see a masterclass from him against Mayo.”

Regardless of how tomorrow’s All-Ireland final pans out, Morgan feels Cluxton’s legacy is secured.

“He epitomises the word ‘legend’. He’s the best that’s ever been and will probably be the best that ever will be. I don’t think anybody will ever trump what he’s done for the game.”

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