Darragh Ó Sé: Do we take for granted how good Stephen Cluxton is?

Tyrone masterclass raises question - do we take Dublin goalkeeper for granted?

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. “Everything that is good about Dublin in a general sense starts with Cluxton in a specific sense.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. “Everything that is good about Dublin in a general sense starts with Cluxton in a specific sense.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Here’s a question. What does Stephen Cluxton have to do to be named Man of the Match in a game? When was the last time he even made the shortlist of three? (Okay, that’s two questions). I left Croke Park on Sunday evening thinking I had just seen a total masterclass from him but in the days since, I have hardly heard his name mentioned once. The guy has been so good for so long now, I think we all take him for granted.

People have been falling over themselves to praise Dublin’s performance on Sunday – and rightly so. But I don’t see how you can do any analysis of why they’re so good without explaining where they get their platform. Everything that is good about Dublin in a general sense starts with Cluxton in a specific sense. Their standards, their skills, their speed of thought. He sets the tone, the rest of them take their lead. Sunday was as good an example of that as I’ve seen.

I went back and watched the first 25 minutes again, up until Con O’Callaghan scored a point to make it 1-8 to 0-4. In that time – which was the winning of the game, basically – Cluxton took eight kick-outs, four long and four short. Six of those times, Dublin scored a point without a Tyrone player getting a hand on the ball. Obviously, that’s not all down to Cluxton. But if you break it down a bit more, you can see the massive influence he has on the rest of them.

Take his first kick-out. Seán Cavanagh had a close-in free to put Tyrone ahead in the second minute. As he lined up the free, Tyrone did what Kerry did in last year’s semi-final. They took advantage of the break in play to squeeze away up and pushed nine players into the Dublin half. This was obviously going to be one of their big tactics – try to rattle Cluxton early and take away Dublin’s platform.

When you think of Cluxton’s kick-outs, what’s the first thing you think of? The speed of them. When the ball is sailing over the bar, he already has his head down beside the foot of his post picking up a new one and heading out to the line with it.

Took his time

But here, for his first kick-out of the game, he took his time. Between the ball going over the bar and Cluxton kicking it out, 15 seconds passed. It was as if he was saying to Tyrone, “Okay lads, what have you got for me? What’s your big idea?” And when he saw that they had all pushed up and got in his face, he decided to kick it out over them.

The Croke Park pitch is 144.5 metres long. I know because I checked yesterday just to make sure I had my numbers right here. Cluxton’s diagonal kick hit Niall Scully just as he crossed the Tyrone 65. Not the Dublin 65, the Tyrone one.

That means in the second minute of an All-Ireland semi-final, with his first kick of the day and nine of the Tyrone team pushed up in front of him, Cluxton pinged a 70-metre pass that landed on Scully’s head. Scully was away in a hack and he passed to James McCarthy who was fouled for a handy free. Draw game. Cluxton’s point.

He kicked the ball and then pointed and roared to the guy he played it to, telling him which direction to go with it

Two things you have to ask yourself about that. One: are there five other footballers in Ireland who could do that? I don’t just mean goalkeepers, I mean footballers in general. Arrow-straight, 70 metres, no hook or draw, right on the money. Make your list there and see can you get to five. Not easy, is it? Honestly, we take him for granted.

And two: how are you feeling if you’re Tyrone there? Every big match is a series of games within games and this is the first big face-off of the day. You’ve laid your cards on the table early. You’ve scored the first point of the game. You’ve gone bull-headed for Cluxton’s kick-out, daring him to make a mistake. And he’s basically laughed at you. As a result, the first little bit of doubt creeps in.

His next three kick-outs came after Tyrone shots from play so he didn’t wait for them to get set up. He got the ball away each time inside six seconds – most of the Tyrone team were running away from him with their back to goal when he chipped it out to Mick Fitzsimons or John Small. For each one, he kicked the ball and then pointed and roared to the guy he played it to, telling him which direction to go with it. Dictating the pace, keeping the tempo up.

Ballsy

His fifth kick-out came after a Peter Harte free so Tyrone were squeezing up again, the same as at the start. This time Tyrone pushed 10 men into the Dublin half, which is about as ballsy as anyone can afford to get against them. Again Scully posted himself on the Tyrone 65 and again Cluxton sent a laser over on top of him. This time, Colm Cavanagh got up to compete but Scully just tapped it down to McCarthy and Dublin were away again. McCarthy took a foul, moved the free on quickly and Dean Rock had the ball over the bar within 20 seconds.

I don’t care if they’ve been training the sub-goalie since he was five years old to take over – there’s no way they have a replacement that can dictate a game like Cluxton does

That was the pattern, right through the first half. Twice he had to delay a kick-out because David Coldrick was dishing out a booking, giving Tyrone time to push up. But they were getting more and more demoralised, both by the scoreboard and by the fact that Cluxton was finding his man every time anyway. Pushing up on him never worked, dropping off still ended up in Dublin getting a shot away anyhow. When O’Callaghan kicked the Dubs into 1-8 to 0-4 lead after 25 minutes, that was that. Game over, ball burst.

All the talk now is of Jim Gavin’s options. He can drop Bernard Brogan, he can drop Michael Darragh MacAuley, he can keep Diarmuid Connolly on the bench until the last three minutes. But don’t try telling me he can plan without Cluxton. I don’t care if they’ve been training the sub-goalie since he was five years old to take over – there’s no way they have a replacement that can dictate a game like Cluxton does.

It was just a masterclass. All you had to do was look around you over the weekend and see his worth. We all saw that the Kerry goalkeeper, Brian Kelly, got himself into such a state over his kick-outs that he ended up putting one out for a 45. He landed two of them down Colm Boyle’s throat for marks.

And I have nothing but sympathy for him. It’s all very well to be sniggering up in your comfortable seat when a goalie can’t get a kick-out away. But when you’re down at pitch level and the other team is pushing up aggressively on you, waving their hands, dancing about, full of mouthing, that’s about as lonely a place as you can be on a football pitch. You have to be an elite performer not to look silly down there.

Danger

This is what I mean by saying we take Cluxton for granted. None of his team-mates ever have to worry about him or give him a second thought. All they have to worry about is doing what he tells them, for fear he gives them a rollicking. He’s like your man Walt in Breaking Bad. He is not in danger – he is the danger. He is the one who knocks.

The upshot is Dublin are always, always playing the game on their own terms. They’re taking their lead from him. Their skills are exceptional – shooting, tackling, passing. That’s because they have very little choice in the matter. When your goalkeeper is possibly a better footballer than you, when he has changed the sport almost single-handedly over the course of his career, then you better be highly-skilled yourself. If not, what’s your excuse?

I watched Kerry over the two games working very hard against Mayo. You couldn’t fault them for effort. But they just weren’t as good at the skills of the game. At one stage near the end of the drawn game, Kerry put in a huge effort to turn over the ball down at the Canal End. They worked like dogs to get the ball back and Tadhg Morley came out with it.

The teams were level with five minutes to go and Tadhg was under no pressure, as Darran O’Sullivan came showing for the ball. The ball out should have been straightforward, just a regulation fist-pass to a man coming about 15 metres away. But Tadhg’s pass was a mile up in the air and Donie Vaughan came through Darran to tip it away and Mayo collected on the break.

Mess

The Dubs just don’t do that sort of thing. Those basic skills, the ones you carry out without having to think about, the ones you can do while you’re looking up and surveying your options, Dublin rarely make a mess of them. Every one of them has a right-hand pass, a left-hand pass, won’t fumble the ball, won’t give it away cheaply. If you get the ball back off Dublin, you’ve usually earned it.

But again, when Cluxton is setting the standard time and time again in every game, what choice do the other Dublin players have only to meet it? The cumulative effect was to make Tyrone look very, very average. And Kerry too, by comparison.

It all leaves Dublin in a great place. Gavin has those players eating out of his hand now. I heard someone asking the other day how he manages to keep all those players happy. And I thought, “Happy? Why in God’s good name would you want to keep them happy?”

Imagine what sort of sour form Brogan and Connolly and MacAuley are going to be in at training over the next three weeks. They’ll be fighting like bears to try to get a place back, to even just get a run off the bench. That won’t be a happy camp running up to the final. It will be edgy, cranky and competitive as hell. Everything you want a pre-final set-up to be.

Gavin couldn’t ask for better.

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