GAA Football

Kicking Out: We must never take Clifford for granted

David Clifford is already destined to go down as arguably the greatest footballer of all time, despite the fact he's only just starting out. Picture by Seamus Loughran

I’D never been on Hill 16 for a game before, let alone an All-Ireland final.

The Irish News sports department was on tenterhooks all week. Five reporters. Three tickets. Derry in the minors, Dublin-Mayo in the big one.

Because Derry were there, tickets were easy enough come by at home.

So I removed happily myself from the equation, booked the day off, bought entry for the Hill and stuck on my red and white geansai.

Meagher’s for a couple. Then a group of us from the club all headed up together, thinking we’d timed the run up the winding concourse perfectly. Missed the first 30 seconds.

We were halfway up when the roar started to lift from beneath us. By the time we arrived, Oran Hartin was picking the ball out of his net.

David Clifford had arrived. 16 seconds into a game in which he wore the pressure of a nation’s gaze for the first time, he delivered in spectacular fashion.

Watching him from behind the goal was a joy. It seemed like such an economy of effort in one sense. Every run was the right run. Every ball kicked his way, he won it, and when he won it, he scored.

Yet two images abide. After roughly 25 minutes, he and his marker Conor McCluskey were down along the Hogan Stand side, the pair of them on their haunches, busted.

It was as if the rest of the game didn’t exist, that it was just these two out on their own, the coach endlessly and repeatedly kicking the ball down on top of them.

Clifford’s 4-4 is a tally likely to remain unmatched in All-Ireland finals, but his assist for Kerry’s third goal that day was another hallmark.

At just 17, he was able to do that thing only the greats can do. He was standing with the ball, seeing the run he wanted Fiachra Clifford to make, directing him with his eyes. Waiting patiently. And when the run arrives, the ball arrives. The pass threads the needle. Perfection.

David Clifford turned 23 in January. This is just his fifth season of senior inter-county football.

Between league (19) and championship (19), he’s played 38 games for Kerry. Already, he’s scored 18 goals and 166 points.

Just over a third of that, 6-67, has been in championship football, despite one of his years being chopped down to those 80 infamous minutes against Cork by the straight knockout format.

If he continues on this course, it doesn’t matter whether he breaks scoring records or not. The numbers may never surpass the Cillian O’Connors or even the Gooches of the world, but Clifford is a very different animal.

Of Cillian O’Connor’s 30 goals, almost a quarter have been from penalties. Of his 337 points, two-thirds have come from dead balls. That’s not to demean his own brilliance, but simply to put Clifford’s in its rightful context.

Because of Clifford’s 18-166 for Kerry, the stats lean completely the opposite direction. 70 per cent of his scores are from open play, with just 30 per cent from dead balls.

In the Super 8s in 2019, he scored 3-12 from play and 1-2 from dead balls.

He took just 17 shots at goal for those 12 points from play, and scored all four of his shots at the net. Crazy stuff.

These are his years. This is his generation.

Football will be captivated by him for however long he wants it to be.

Clifford is our Michael Jordan, our Cristiano Ronaldo and our Tiger Woods all squeezed into one gangly, sometimes awkward-looking young prince from Kerry.

The running style, the head dangling from its spot on his neck, the shoulders wheezing and windmilling, the unreadable dummies, the studdy strikes that tease the ‘keeper and drop six inches over the crossbar and the ones that test Hawkeye’s upward mobility, the smile that greets the chirping in his ear, its widening at the lifting of green and white flags, it all makes him so unmistakable and unmarkable.

He is the nearest we’ll ever have to a global phenomenon. That he chose to reject the overtures of the AFL, once saying it wasn’t Australian Rules he grew up dreaming of playing, is a cause to rejoice.

In fairness, we seem to be well aware of it. Every time the curtain falls on a Kerry game hundreds of mini wannabe starlets, mostly from the opposing county, lay siege to his personal space.

To see the crowd rush towards him as they did in Armagh on Sunday has become one of the great sights of our time, and remains one of the great connections that we as a people have to inter-county football.

As time wears on and the players become less and less part of their home community, more insulated and tucked away, the pitch invasions may be an insurance officer’s nightmare but they’re a marketing dream.

We must be wary too that some day Clifford might grow tired of always being the last one back on the bus. We can’t be too sore on him if he does.

Back to the Michael Jordan comparison, there’s a scene in The Last Dance where he leans back in his hotel room, watching TV with a cigar in his mouth. He talks there about how those hotel rooms became his only solitude, the one place on earth where he didn’t have to be Michael Jordan, that he could just be.

Fame is no burden yet on David Clifford because his career path is going almost exactly to plan, with the honourable and very notable exception of a senior All-Ireland medal.

Had he not had to go off at the end of normal time against Tyrone in last year’s semi-final, there’s a good chance he’d have one already.

That day will come soon, and probably again and again before his career is out.

As football weans itself off the Messi-Ronaldo era, the global nature of the game ensures there will always be new superstars coming behind to soften the grieving process.

Gaelic football doesn’t have that luxury.

As David Clifford entertains us over the next decade, we simply must promise that we never take it for granted or get bored of it.

Because his reign will be over in a blink, and we might never see the like of him again.

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