THERE are a few minutes left until throw-in and, on this last All-Ireland final to fill the traditional third Sunday in September slot, Croke Park is starting to hum.
Pockets of supporters find their voice after the long trip from either end of the country as the minors of Derry and Kerry gear up for the game of their young lives. They aren’t alone either.
While pre-match nerves are settled in hostelries up O’Connell Street and around the northside ahead of the big one, a smattering of sky blue jerseys nudge up against the green and red of Mayo on the way through the turnstiles.
No skin in the game, no matter. They’re here for one reason only – to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom’s new boy prince.
David Clifford arrived at the 2017 All-Ireland minor decider with 4-38 beside his name from earlier victories over Clare, Cork, Louth and Cavan.
Notice had long been served in the north-west too as Clifford plundered 2-5 – 2-3 from play – when St Brendan’s, Killarney toppled St Patrick’s, Maghera in the Hogan Cup final 17 months earlier.
Every county carries tales of freakishly gifted minors, some who made it, some who didn’t.
A strapping 6’2” and blessed with the balance of a ballet dancer, there was never even a smidgeon of doubt about Clifford, the magisterial career that has illuminated the game ever since bearing out that superstar-in-waiting status.
Chrissy McKaigue is pitchside with TG4’s Mícheál Ó Domhnaill while the teams warm up, running the rule over his county’s chances, the class of Clifford, and the man handed the almighty task of stopping him.
“I’ve been very impressed with Conor McCluskey as a man-marker - very tough and very tight,” he said, “but I don’t know if there’s anyone in the country, at this age, who can go toe-to-toe with David Clifford…”
Within 12 seconds, the worst pre-match fears were realised.
Clifford pulls out to the right edge of the square and collects a long diagonal pass, holds off McCluskey, turns back inside and, even with red and white bodies closing the space, slots low into the far corner past Oran Hartin.
“It was like bouncers trying to throw Jean-Claude Van Damme out of a disco,” remarked Joe Brolly, capturing the moment in his own inimitable style.
Unfortunately for Derry, it didn’t end there. Clifford would finish up with 4-4 as the Kingdom ran riot in a 6-17 to 1-8 drubbing - 2-3 of that haul coming in the opening half hour, as well as 1-1 laid on a plate for team-mates.
McCluskey, meanwhile, was replaced by Declan Cassidy at the break.
“He had come to us, sort of saying I’m absolutely gone here,” recalls Damian McErlain, manager of that Derry minor team.
“He had been a bit unwell the week of the game, maybe more unwell than even he thought. But when he put his hand up to say ‘I’m struggling here’, it was a big thing because that just wasn’t his style.”
Criticism came the Derry management’s way in the aftermath - the decision not to play a sweeper when faced with a generational talent, and a Kerry side packed with pace and power, fodder for those wise after the event.
But for all the talk of Clifford, McErlain’s bold selection was a demonstration of the faith he had in his young full-back. The previous year McCluskey had given Clifford little room to operate before, 25 minutes in, firefighting duties saw him moved onto the rampant Sean O’Shea further out the field.
There was reason to believe.
“Sometimes people don’t pay a lot of attention to minors until they get to a semi-final or a final, so a lot of people in Derry didn’t know ‘Clucky’, then you had the masses going ‘Jesus, imagine leaving that man in there on his own’.
“But he was the best full back at that level in the country, at that stage. As you see him now, that’s how he was performing at minor level.
“We got plenty of stick for not putting a sweeper in, but that’s the context - we felt ‘Clucky’ would be the best Clifford had met that year.”
LESSER men might have folded, and you could hardly have blamed them. But Conor McCluskey is made of the sternest stuff – his story one of quiet resilience and, ultimately, reward.
Within a few years of that Croke Park nightmare he was a defensive lynchpin as Magherafelt stunned an emerging Glen side to claim their first Derry crown since 1978.
Having been handed his senior county debut by McErlain, McCluskey has earned a reputation as one of the stickiest man-markers in the country, the silent assassin going about his work with the minimum of fuss as Derry ended a 24-year wait for the Anglo-Celt last summer.
Yet a part of September 18, 2017 will always be with him, for better or worse.
“To be honest, I’ve tried to block it out as much as I possibly can,” he says with a rueful laugh.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it. He’s so elusive for a big guy, and like, just powerful. His acceleration and power to get away from you is second to none. It’s all well and good having the athleticism, which he clearly does, but he probably has the best feet in the country to go with it.
“It’s probably the dream combination for any forward, so when you put the power, the way he can hold the ball like a basketball player and nearly buy himself an extra yard on the one he already has… he’s never rushing a shot. He’s always stroking the ball over, making it look easy.
“He was just so difficult to stop that day. He scored the goal from the throw-in and, once he got that, there was no real turning back, he had all the momentum. Yeah…”
So, how does a young man rebuild after an experience like that? Family and friends were a constant source of support, but their words could only ever carry him so far.
Damage was done that day, leaving doubts only he could overcome.
“At the time I maybe didn’t see it, but it really did take me longer than I’d like to admit to get over it.
“On the biggest stage, to get what I felt was a humiliation at the time, my confidence really did take a big hit. In the immediate aftermath, I just thought ‘I’m never going to be good enough - that’s the senior level, you’re not going to be good enough’.
“But then as I reflected on it a bit more, it motivated me to get myself into the physical condition I needed to be able to compete with him. Obviously it was a big gap that day, so I used it as motivation to try and close that gap, and then you just kept working and working to try and get there.”
It didn’t happen overnight but, where Chrissy McKaigue was once the other side of the white line casting an eye over McCluskey and a new generation of talent, the pair now stand shoulder to shoulder – critical components in a stingy defence that has driven Derry from under-performers to provincial kingpins with All-Ireland ambitions.
He may not go as far as the little black book that was a prized possession of another Derry destroyer, Sean Marty Lockhart, but due diligence is the name of the game for McCluskey too.
And, just like Damian McErlain and all those who had him at any level before, Rory Gallagher’s faith is absolute.
“It’s always the role I’ve been given - you do like the one to one, the personal battle.
“I think that does help because you’re so focused… obsessed, I’d say, is the word sometimes. Man marking can be an obsession.
“Ben McGuckin would provide video clips of the forwards you might be marking, you’d look through them, see if they have any wee dummies or tells. Then Ciaran [Meenagh] or Rory might speak to you about what way they might prefer you would mark him.
“But then sometimes the preparation nearly goes out the window when they come walking over to you. Instinct is a big part of it, and games can take on a life of their own, go different ways, then you have to adapt.”
And adapt he has, to whatever challenge came his way.
Last summer McCluskey successfully shackled Monaghan sharpshooter Conor McManus, Donegal pair Jamie Brennan and Conor O’Donnell during the course of 90-plus gruelling minutes before holding Shane Walsh scoreless from play in the All-Ireland semi-final, the Galway hotshot going to on to bag a sensational 0-9 in the Tribe’s final near miss against Kerry.
It led to an Allstar nomination, with some believing the 24-year-old’s understated nature on and off the field made it all too easy for him to be overlooked when awards were dished out.
That is a conversation he wants no part of, with McCluskey highly unlikely to start putting his hand up for sponsored gigs or podcast appearances any time soon – content, as always, to leave his talking to the field of play.
“I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest,” he says, almost embarrassed, “it was nice to be nominated, to be perfectly honest.
“When you see the quality of defenders that got awards, you couldn’t begrudge any of them, they all were fully deserving winners. There’s no disappointment or regret on my part anyway.
“I’ll just stick with the low profile,” he laughs, “this will probably be the last interview I do!”
Instead, all these months since Derry came flying out of the blocks before falling short against Galway, signalling the premature end of a spectacular summer, it is the what ifs from that game which still nag and gnaw.
“I haven’t really watched it back, but it definitely is tinged with a bit of regret about what could’ve been if we’d built on that strong start. There are things, if you could have it back, that we would do differently, because there was more in us that day.
“That’s probably the annoying part. We just didn’t capitalise and build on the way we started the game but, to be fair to Galway, they pressed us in the second half really squeezed the life out of us and didn’t really give us a chance to breathe.
“They’re a very smart team and they showed that in the final… Shane Walsh’s performance against Kerry arguably gave me more praise somehow, in a weird way.
“But he’s a quality player, and on his day he’s more than capable of doing that to even a top quality defender like Tom O’Sullivan.”
McCluskey was in Croke Park that day too.
A few weeks after his own heartache, he watched from the stands as David Clifford - back on a patch of grass that has become the Fossa phenomenon’s playground – led Kerry to the promised land once more.
Their paths will cross again, of that there is little doubt. And whenever that day does come, no matter the stage, the yearning to right a wrong against the best around - maybe the best there has ever been – will send him into battle.
“At the time it’s one of the biggest games in your life, and for it to go the way it went, it was incredibly disappointing. That would be a motivational factor to just keep working hard and maybe one day getting another go at him.
“To fully get over it, and nearly stop having nightmares about it, you’d like to have another go - just for your own redemption nearly.”