I’ll be honest here. I went searching for the number of Allstars that Stephen Cluxton has won and I’m surprised that it’s only six.
Six Allstars is some haul for any player. I, like many others, had just been sucked in by the media hype around the Dublin number one and believed that he had picked up the gong almost every year since he first assumed the number one jersey for the Dubs back in 2001.
Across much of the 13 year span since, he has been widely recognised as the best goalkeeper in the country. It took a while for some to pick up on it. It took a while for some to appreciate his ability to pick Shane Ryan’s runs out back in the day.
Ryan was a globetrotter, lest we forget. He’s the first man that I ever saw play at midfield and not stand in the centre waiting on the ball to be boomed 80 yards into the air for a 50-50 scrap.
I was fairly young at that time but remember watching this sandy haired lad that was just a bit different. He didn’t do what all the others did.
He was able to do it because he had Stephen Cluxton setting the ball down and drilling it into the spaces that Ryan would make the runs in to. It forms my first memory of the revolution that the Dublin goalkeeper has brought about.
Tactics are very cyclical. Chatting to Conor McManus at last week’s launch of the Ulster Championship, he laughed about when Donegal won the All-Ireland in 2012, every club in the country put 13 men behind the ball the following year.
He laughed about Kerry winning All-Irelands with Kieran Donaghy at full-forward and every club manager thinking this was a great new tactic, and putting the biggest battering ram they had on the edge of the square for a couple of seasons.
Right now, the ‘in’ thing is attacking. Dublin are the ones who have laid that platform down. Barring a couple, most notably Donegal and Cavan, almost everyone is following suit. The era of the sweeper is not dead but it is not as prevalent a tactic as it once was.
If someone beats Dublin or if someone else wins the All-Ireland, then their tactics will be hailed as genius and club managers will go about copying the latest template. That’s just been the way of it for the last 15 years.
But it is hard to envisage that goalkeeping will ever be the same again. That is thanks to Cluxton.
Cluxton has been able to further revolutionise how kickouts can be used to a team’s advantage. He leaves very little to chance.
The way we are in this country, it was almost 2011 before his skill was truly appreciated. It took for Dublin to win an All-Ireland for everyone to herald him. Up until then, a fair amount of scepticism still existed as to whether it was an effective tactic.
Unlike the big man at full-forward or the 13 men behind the ball, it’s not something that has been widely brought in to club football. That’s because it requires superb technique, accuracy and confidence from a goalkeeper.
Most club goalkeepers are not between the posts for their kicking ability. They’re there because they’re either good in the air or they’re good shot-stoppers. Some clubs are fortunate that their goalkeepers are both. Those have always been the two primary skills of a goalkeeper.
But the way the game has changed at the top level is emphasised by the fact that Thomas Mallon now deservedly holds the number one jersey for Derry.
Barry Gillis before him was a totally different type of goalkeeper. You would have trusted him to catch you if you were jumping from a burning building. He was terrific under a high ball. But his kickouts were more limited. It was hammered straight down the middle and left for men to fight over. Any 50-50 ball in the air nowadays offers the defensive team the chance to break it away.
That ability of a goalkeeper to pick men out is a big advantage for club and county. Possession is king and if you’re losing your own kickouts, you’re going to do well to win any game. It showed on Sunday past what Dublin could do when you surrendered the ball to them as easily as Derry did. It allowed them to build up a head of steam and their pace and power running from deep was too much for the Oak Leafers to then handle.
It is the teams that have pushed up on Cluxton that have had all the success against Dublin. There is no definitive analysis to hand but since his kickouts were heralded as such a large part of their All-Ireland win in 2011, Cluxton has not enjoyed the same level of success on his restarts.
He is human, like everyone else. His strength was partly in his own kicking but also largely in the movement of the men in front of him. In the beginning, opposition teams simply didn’t expect wing-to-wing runs by corner backs or half backs that would create space for Cluxton to drop the ball in to. His job was much easier three years ago than it is now.
Take last year’s All-Ireland run. When Cork pushed up in the first half of their quarter-final defeat, they won half of Dublin’s kickouts. When Kerry did the same in the second half of the semi-final, they won more than 50 per cent of the ball from Cluxton’s restarts.
His importance to what Dublin have done in the last four years has been massive. Aside from his kickouts, he has proven an invaluable asset from attacking set-plays. He is one of the few brilliant dead-ball kickers from the ground and again set the wheels in motion for the likes of Tyrone’s Niall Morgan, who has taken his side’s long range efforts since coming into the team.
But is Cluxton’s ability to pick men out from kickouts and his ability to kick long range frees enough to make him the best ‘keeper in Ireland?
You look at the rest of his game and there are areas of weakness. He is not a particularly good shot-stopper, and nor is he as dominant under a high ball as others.
The most recent example of both came in their league semi-final win over Cork. He made little attempt to deny Colm O’Neill’s early strike, and was then guilty of completely missing the ball in the air on the Rebels’ second goal, which went in off an unsuspecting Nicky Devereux.
In last year’s All-Ireland final, Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly made two outstanding saves. The second of them, three minutes into the second half from Eoghan O’Gara, was absolutely brilliant. It hardly got a mention in the post-match coverage. Mayo also won a larger percentage of their own kickouts than Dublin that September afternoon.
Cluxton, when he comes to meet a forward, often closes his body up and keeps his hands in close to himself. Paul Hearty often had the same problem for Armagh. The like of Hennelly, Down’s Brendan McVeigh, and particularly Kerry’s Brendan Kealy are the opposite. Kealy is often derided, even in his own county, and yet some of the saves he has made since taking over from Diarmuid Murphy have been sensational. He makes himself massive and uses his arms, legs and chest to great effect.
But like Cluxton, and the rest, he has weaknesses. He is not the best under a high ball.
The media are at times blinded by what they know rather than what they see. And when the media tell people things, they sometimes suck it in and regurgitate it. I think particularly of the example of Petr Cech in the Premier League. For a man of his size, he gets beaten by some awful goals. I don’t remember the last time I saw him fully extend his arms to try and make a save.
Cluxton has long been heralded as being out on his own, as being a class above anything else in Ireland. He is not. He has been a massive part of Dublin’s success but he has been so widely raved out because he’s been different. In some aspects, different has not meant better.
There are others you could make a case for as being close to him. Cluxton has changed the world of GAA goalkeeping. He has been a revolutionary and for that he will be remembered. But that does not make him the best goalkeeper ever to have played the game.
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