GAA Football

Kicking Out: Cluxton sacrificing farewell to give Comerford cover the last mark of greatness

Debate rages over whether Stephen Cluxton has played his last game for Dublin after 21 years. Picture by Seamus Loughran

“Jim, Declan, Jayo are excellent coaches but they’ve the humility and the cop-on to hand some of the coaching over to the players. Especially when it comes to kickouts. Clucko is as much a coach as he is a goalie when we’re working on them. If this were American Football, he’d be our kickout special teams co-ordinator.”
- Bernard Brogan, The Hill

JIM Gavin sat down, confronted by a gaggle of dictaphones and a sea of tired explorers whose energy had been drawn from their souls by the years of this.

Post All-Ireland press conferences were the biggest journalistic disappointment of many years. The one day you thought they might let the barricades down just a fraction, they never did. It was all processes and on to the next one.

Until 2019. Gavin didn’t say anything really extraordinary after the replay win over Kerry, but it became much easier to plot the course of Dublin’s future from the moment he sat down.

The weight of chasing five-in-a-row was lifted from his shoulders. He spoke with the freedom of Nelson Mandela at the end of the long walk.

In waxing lyrical about Stephen Cluxton, he not only gave a sure indication that he was on his own way out, but also offered a very rare insight into exactly why Dublin’s number one has been the custodian that he’s been for his county.

Cluxton had spent two hours out on the training pitch the day after the drawn game, trying to get a replay of Killian Spillane’s goal in super slo-mo so that he could see what he’d done wrong with his feet.

It was the rarest of insights into the level of obsession he would go to.

We’d all heard the usual - first at training, last to leave – but it’s hard to think of any other anecdote out there that boils down what it was that he actually did in all the time he spent at Innisfails and Abbotstown.

Opposition coaches spent hours, weeks, months, years poring over him, trying to suss the Cluxton code.

Most goalkeepers have ticks. They’ll carry the ball out with a certain hand to kick to a certain side, some subtle signal, their body position behind the ball, whatever.

With him, it was nearly impossible to work it out. He was able to kick the ball 70 metres with a single step run-up. He could pivot his body in a second and kick to the right instead of his favoured left.

Cluxton also fielders that no other county had. There were always big, athletic men who could get to the wing and take the ball above their head at full-tilt.

But what all those years of training added up to was what really sets Dublin apart on the whole.

The reason coaches couldn’t get a read on Cluxton was because he’s one of the best decision-makers to ever have graced Gaelic football.

As the passage above from Bernard Brogan’s book outlines, Cluxton was effectively their kickout strategist. He would dictate the runs, where the space was left, who occupied which positions.

They had certain set plays and routines like the rest of them.

But he never played the game on a screen in a team meeting. Stephen Cluxton played the game he saw in front of him.

If he’d set up to kick to Paul Flynn but saw him in a two-on-one, he’d just change the kick and go somewhere else. Better still, he’d be able to find where the opposition’s spare man had come from and where his own side’s spare body was.

He was a human decryption service. Whatever trap the opposition laid out, Cluxton could spot it and figure his way out of it.

That was why nobody could work out the Cluxton code. There was no code; just a man, a ball, a tee and a field full of runners and catchers.

This is all in the past tense because, like many, I don’t expect to see Stephen Cluxton in a Dublin jersey again.

Why? In the little we have learned about the man in 21 years playing for his county, we do know that he is absolutely obsessed by perfection.

Dessie Farrell says he is not currently with the squad. That means he hasn’t been with them since last year’s All-Ireland final.

Dublin have been back in collective training (legally) for almost three months.

The Leinster final is in three weeks. The All-Ireland final is just eight weeks away.

Their success does not just happen by accident. Cluxton might play the game he sees, but that relies on others seeing it the same way. Making the right runs into the right spaces.

That’s what the last three months will have been about for Evan Comerford. He has been involved in enough in-house games to have climbed aboard the bucking bronco, but it will only be when the pace lifts and Kerry or Donegal come knocking that we’ll know if he’s able to hold on to it.

It has to happen some day.

The fact that Cluxton is at the centre of the conversation right now looks orchestrated.

Does anyone believe for a single second that Dessie Farrell doesn’t know if Cluxton will be back or not? That would go against everything Dublin are and have been in the last decade.

This is not the middle of the league. We’re three weeks into championship.

Aside from what Dessie Farrell wants, does any of it add up at all to what little we know about the obsessive Cluxton? Why would he do that to himself and the team?

But in keeping alive a will-he-or-won’t-he discussion, Dublin are keeping the spotlight on Cluxton and avoiding it turning to Comerford.

Think about how different The Sunday Game would have been at the weekend. Instead of Tomás Ó Sé and Colm O’Rourke talking about whether he’ll come back, they’d have been picking apart Evan Comerford’s kickouts.

Dublin don’t want the scrutiny on his ticks or which hand he carries the ball with, or how good his decision-making is.

They don’t want the comparison to the greatest goalkeeper of all time, because Comerford can’t win that, and the discussion will only ever turn towards this being a weakness.

That said, he’s clearly from the same school. When he was at DCU and team-mates would enquire about a kickout strategy, Comerford would reply: ‘Just move and I’ll find you’.

It’s still a big burden on a goalkeeper making his introduction to championship football.

Yet you can be sure Kerry are still half preparing for Cluxton because they don’t know for sure he won’t be playing down the line.

There was never going to be an easy way for Dublin to manage Cluxton’s exit.

If you believe that the most professional outfit in the history of Gaelic football doesn’t know if their most influential figure will return, I’ve a bag of magic beans here with your name on them.

As unlikely as it seems, he might come back. But if he does, Dublin already know he’s coming back, down to the very minute he’ll pull into the car park.

The gut feeling is that he’s gone. 40-year-olds (as he will be in December) don’t take a year out of county football. They play or they retire.

Wouldn’t it just be typical of his dedication to Dublin that he’s sacrificed the fanfare an announcement would bring in favour of a scene of smoke and mirrors, designed to distract and allow Evan Comerford to grow in the shadows?

Nothing would sum Stephen Cluxton up better.

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