Stephen Cluxton Q&A: Footballer of the Year on success, self-criticism and life
Six-time All Star looks back on his career after becoming oldest player to win award
Stephen Cluxton of Dublin during the PwC All-Stars 2019 at the Convention Centre in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
On Friday night Dublin goalkeeper and captain Stephen Cluxton was named the 2019 PwC GAA/GPA Footballer of the Year, voted by his fellow inter-county players, and received a sixth All Star. Next month he will be 38, making him the oldest player to receive the award. He is the first goalkeeper to be named FOTY in the current scheme although in the long-standing Texaco awards, discontinued in 2012, two predecessors Martin Furlong of Offaly in 1982 and Cork’s Billy Morgan in 1973 were honoured.
A reluctant interviewee, he nonetheless spoke at length to the sponsors to mark the occasion. This is the full text.
Q: Congratulations Stephen, what does it mean to be crowned PwC Footballer of the Year for 2019?
I’m just delighted. Shocked. Still haven’t processed it properly yet, probably. But absolutely delighted.
Q: Two of your Dublin team-mates were also nominated for the award. An award like this acknowledges individual excellence, but I’m sure you’d be the first to say it was your team who got you here?
Yeah, 100 per cent. Like, Con (O’Callaghan) has dug us out of a few holes on more than one occasion and Jack (McCaffrey) the same. Jack had a phenomenal first All-Ireland, he bagged 1-3 that day. Con was fantastic in the semi-final when we needed to turn up the heat.
And, I think, throughout the team when guys have had poor days, that’s the sign and mark of a great team that your team-mates are digging you out. Okay, it’s an individual award, but I certainly think that it was a team effort throughout the year to get it.
Q: How special an experience for you has it been for you to be part of this journey with Dublin football over a considerable period of time and to be captain of a team that has created history?
When I look back to 2001 and up to 2010, the ups and downs that we had throughout those years, they were very turbulent. Maybe from 2010 onwards we found our feet and started working harder.
I think when you look back on it, I think that time-frame has stood to me. You learn something new from everybody. Whether it’s positive or negative you’ll learn something from something someone else is doing and you can take. Especially from captains like Bryan Cullen and people like Denis Bastick, some great leaders. Paul Flynn as well, they’ve all put their shoulder to the wheel. Paul Casey, Tomás Quinn, the list is endless to be quite honest.
You just take small nuggets from them and you try to bring that into your own game and bring it into your own captaincy.
Q: It’s taken a huge commitment from you to have played at the highest level for so long. Where do you source your motivation from? What drives you?
I’m very competitive, I would have to say. Medals to the side, it’s about going out and trying to compete against the best. And that starts with trying to compete with the goalkeepers that are in Dublin.
Evan (Comerford) and Michael (Shields) are phenomenal goalkeepers. They’re young and they’re hungry and probably brought a bit of freshness to me over the last number of years because they want the jersey and I want it too. There’s that bit of competitiveness to want to be the best.
I suppose after that then, it’s more or less what is best for the team. I think if I’m not the best for the job I don’t have a problem with that. If I’ve given my all and we come up short, then I don’t have a problem with that. I’m definitely hungry and competitive for success. If you get beaten and you’re beaten by a better team then hats off and you maybe have to have a look at next year and doing more.
Q: Jim Gavin spoke about you after the All-Ireland Final replay and revealed that the day after the drawn game you had brought a laptpop to training and was watching footage with Evan and Michael of the goal you’d conceded and were self-critical about the positioning of your feet for it?
Yeah, I suppose when you’re down to 14 men in the first game and you’re trying to work out scenarios and obviously one of the scenarios is if they can get a goal there’s a chance for them to either beat us or get a draw out of it. I suppose up to that point we were relatively comfortable and they just came hard at us. In fairness to Killian, he stepped really hard off his right foot, came around, and planted it into the bottom corner.
I just thought that at that point I could have done more to maybe come out and get closer to him. Or certainly adjust my feet and try to make a save. I got probably caught flat-footed. So, yeah, the following morning I was out with the lap-top with the two guys and obviously Josh Moran the goalkeeping coach and we were just trying to figure out what I could have done better, what I should have done better, and we maybe wouldn’t have had to play a replay. So I’ll blame myself for that one!
Q: Most people would say you’re being way too hard on yourself. But maybe you have to be like that to be the best at an elite level?
Yeah, like, I just don’t want to let anyone down. I think if I train really, really hard and I made a mistake then I can accept that because I know the hours I’ve put in. But I suppose in a team game I’m kind of worried I could make a mistake and cost the team and that drives me as well to try to train harder. I did say to the guys at the start of the year that I wouldn’t want to let them down during the year.
So, yeah, this year was fortuitous in the way it kind of unfolded. I’m happy-out, I suppose.
Q: Brian Fenton recently said he was delighted with how the year had gone for you because he felt you were disappointed with how last season unfolded because of the injury you sustained. Is that fair enough to say?
Yeah, in fairness to Brian he can read me very well. He’s a top man, a great friend. Obviously I got injured in the Longford game. I broke three bones in my back, had a punctured lung, and I had cartilage damage in my shoulder. I still have dodgy ankles from a long time ago. So it was a struggle to try to get back up to the level I wanted. I thought I had gotten up to a really good level up to the Longford game. I actually thought it was the best I had been in terms of my standard in training. I was actually making saves instead of picking the ball out of the net more often than not.
Yeah, when I got the injuries then it just curtailed all the training and it leads to doubts in my mind then as to my ability at the standard that I want to be at and whether or not it will cost the team in the end. Thankfully the guys got us over the line last year. Then I had to spend five months rehabbing up to maybe February of this year.
I wasn’t really sure then as to whether or not I’d have the grá and the hunger for it because Evan was playing so well in the League. I felt maybe it was his turn to go. But, in fairness, the guys coaxed me back to do another year and I’m delighted I did it in the end, to be honest.
Q: You’re a science teacher. Does that background influence how you approach football in terms of cause and effect, and having a very analytical approach to the game?
Yeah, I’d have to say it probably does. A huge part of my life is analysing things. Certainly when it comes to kick-outs for a team, you’re looking at maybe what the opposition might try and you’re trying to get the guys to work on something that might never happen, but, if it did, then you have that Eureka moment in a game saying I’ve been here before in training and the guys know what to do.
That’s kind of the level you’re playing at in this day and age. If you asked Jim (Gavin), he’s probably sick of me saying, ‘we need to more kick-out training in collective training’. But, in fairness, he does give me the time with the guys and when it works on the pitch you’re kind of saying to yourself, great, that’s exactly what you want.
Q: You rightly get a lot of credit for your kick-outs, but it’s not just about you, is it? There are so many moving parts?
Yeah, that’s it, it’s not about me. We formulate a plan, I go back to Jim and have a discussion with him about why I think it might or might not work. Then we go out and see it on the practice field and do a couple of runs with it. We try and hide it from some of the teams so that they don’t see what’s happening and see if they can respond to it. And if they respond, how are the guys going to respond.
So there’s a lot of moving parts in it, you’re dead right. There are some really, really intelligent footballers in our team, all of them. The back six, the two midfielders, the half-forwards and even the full-forwards are sometimes involved in the kick-out. And, you know, the sign of a good team is that when there are these clutch moments they make the right decisions. And, more often than not, the guys out the field make the right run and you pick them out and it’s possession gained.
Q: You can’t deny that penalty-saving is all about you and that you seem to have a knack for it. Have you any tips for budding young goalkeepers out there about the art of penalty-saving?
I don’t know. I’ve probably conceded more than I’ve saved, to be quite honest. I conceded one last year against Tyrone. Saved one against Tyrone the year previous, I think it was. I think it’s just pot-luck, really. Again, you can look at a lot of footage of players in terms of where they place the ball, but sometimes it just comes down to a gut-feeling.
Q: Is it the ultimate buzz for a goalkeeper, saving a penalty in an All-Ireland?
It’s not for me. It’s just part and parcel of what you have to do for the job. It worked out that we ended up getting a replay in the first game. If they had of scored that or any chances subsequent to that, we might not have been in a replay. So you’re just so kind of focused on the job at that moment in time. I mean, if you were celebrating after saving a penalty and it goes out for a ‘45 and the next ball comes in and someone tips it into the back of the net...you just have to be on 100 per cent alert and fully-focused all the time and you don’t really get an opportunity to have a come-down from something like a save until after the game when you can say, right, you were part of the draw.
Q: I PwC Hurler of the Year, Seamus Callanan said that when you’re still in the thick of your playing career and focused on each succeeding goal you do not really have much of a sustained emotional reaction to the success you achieve along the way because you’re still within the process and want to win more. Is it something similar for you?
Yeah. I remember going to a Cork hurling final and I was sitting in the stand and enjoying the buzz and atmosphere and thinking I’d love to know what it would be like out on the pitch. But when you’re out on the pitch it’s just completely different. You’re not even thinking of anything other than your role and your job for the team.
Yeah, it’s a strange one, in fairness, because there is no feeling, really. You’ve just got a job to do and you have to do it and execute it to the best of your ability and see where it takes the team, you know?
Q: This group of Dublin players come across as a humble and grounded bunch despite all the success. Is that one of the primary reasons the team has such sustained success?
I think it’s a huge part of it. I’d go to the cinema with someone like Eoin Murchan, Brian Fenton and his partner Sarah, and sometimes Con O’Callaghan. Obviously when we’re within the Championship season you don’t obviously get to go out and have a drink with these guys. We get on so well outside of football that I think it makes you that bit hungrier and that bit more willing to put it all out on the line for them. That’s the sign of this team, their humility, and just the friendship we have in the group is fantastic.
Q: Is that what you appreciate most about your time playing with Dublin?
One hundred per cent. Like, if I never won a medal in football for any team, the friendship we have is just better than anything. We kind of live out of each other’s pockets for most of the year. In years previously I wouldn’t have been that close to guys I would have just gone to training, trained hard, and gone home and that was it. But, for some reason, maybe it’s the captaincy or whatever, there just seems to be that kind of friendship there now. I think the best times that you have with these guys are in training. That’s when you actually have the most joy and fun and the joking and stuff like that. The dressing-room banter and stuff like that, you just can’t get it anywhere.
Q: You were saying you annoy Jim Gavin sometimes with your goal-kicking drill request, but I’d imagine you are both cut from the same cloth because he is very forensic in his approach and you seem to be too. Is there a good dynamic there?
Yeah, it doesn’t always work! (laughs) He might want one thing and I might want the other! No, I have complete respect for what he does and what he has done for this team. Nobody has worked harder than he has. He just spends hours poring over it. I don’t know where he gets the time from with his job and family at home. He has been absolutely inspirational to everybody. He has been a huge leader for me and it’s probably rubbed off a small bit on what I do. Definitely he’s just been phenomenal.
Q: What sort of dynamic would you have with defenders like Jonny Cooper, Michael Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon and James McCarthy who you have been soldiering with for so long?
Sometimes you don’t even talk to each other in a game. You just need to look at each other and you know what the other guy is thinking. You know what you get with these guys. I’ve seen it in training. They just give everything. They’re just those type of guys where they just give everything all the time. I just respect that with anybody. If guys are killing themselves to play football then that to me shows me exactly the type of person they are and I absolutely love them for that. That, to me, speaks volumes in terms of what they really want.
Because people can talk the talk sometimes, and they don’t back it up with the actions. These guys put it in every day on the training field and that’s what I get from them.
Q: It sounds like that ethos is just engrained now in this Dublin group. That you all pretty much self-police one another and anything other than total commitment and hard-work just isn’t acceptable within the group?
Yeah, that’s it. In fairness to the older guys, they have passed that down to the younger guys. Now, I’m not saying the younger guys weren’t hungry because they won All-Irelands at underage so came in with that attitude anyway. I kind of just reaffirmed their belief that you have to work hard if you want to succeed.
And, yeah, it is unacceptable for guys to turn up and not train as hard as they possibly can. People would call you out. It’s healthy, I think that guys are like that.
Q: You suggested that at the end of last year and start of this year you were asking yourself did you have the grá for it to play another championship campaign with Dublin. You did. At what point do you start asking yourself that question in relation to 2020 and beyond?
Yeah, it’s a tough question, I suppose. We still haven’t finished this year. There’s still two months to go before I’ll maybe ask myself that question. It will probably be in January. I’ll obviously have to talk to Jim and see what part he wants me to play next year. He might not want me around and that would be completely fine with me. If he feels that the other two goalkeepers are ready then I’m absolutely ready to step away.
If he thinks I have something more to offer, then I would probably need to have a good think about it because it’s not easy just to continue going. So, I probably won’t be asking myself that question until January.
Q: When you win an award like this I’d imagine they mean as much to a player’s family and support network as much as they do to the player themselves. Maybe even more. I’m sure you wouldn’t have been able to achieve all you have without the support of those around you, presumably?
Oh yeah, it goes back so, so far. I didn’t play Gaelic football until I was about 13 or 14. And when I was playing I was playing as a corner-forward in school I was just lucky when I got into goal in school that the coaches I had were fantastic. Brian Talty, a Galway man, Brian Moran, Brian Lavin, two Kerry-men. Those guys got me started into Gaelic Football and on that journey.
Brian Murphy, another Kerry guy who was goalkeeper at the time with me in the early years. We were starting to put drills together and things like that. Phenomenal fellas have started that. And obviously nowadays Josh Byrne is a phenomenal coach for me, a great character, a great presence to have around. He always comes in with a smile. He’s just a phenomenal character.
But it does start with your parents and their dedication to bring me to games as a child and any sport that was available was a huge bearing on where I am today. Within all those I wouldn’t be here, that’s for sure.
Q: I presume it must be hard to imagine what life will be like when you’re not a goalkeeper for Dublin? It’s been such a big part of your life.
Yeah, and in fairness all of my siblings have had to put up with me at one stage or another. I’d feel sorry for them more than for anybody else. I’ve missed weddings, I’ve missed baptisms and communions and confirmations and things like that and they’ve been very understanding. My brother and sisters are just so understanding. Again, without their support I wouldn’t have started that journey.
Obviously my wife has taken on the baton, God love her! You can imagine it doesn’t be easy when I come home and have had a poor training session! But it’s water off a duck’s back for her and I think that works really well for both of us. She has been a phenomenal support and without her I certainly wouldn’t be here today.
Q: Can you clear up whether your 38th birthday was in September or is coming up in December? I’ve seen it written as one or the other in various publications...
(Laughs) Yeah, December! I’ll be 38 in December, getting close to the pension!
Q: So to sum it all up, and hopefully you have a chapter or two to write just yet, to be a part of this journey with Dublin and get to push your own boundaries as a sportsperson, just how special has it been?
I’ve tried to reflect on every year and I’ve tried to promise myself that I would be better the following year. Obviously there have been highs and lows throughout the years and throughout my career. And, you know, I still think when I look back over my years that I’ve probably been getting better and better. My coaching has improved as well and I think I’ve been more focused on goalkeeping than I have been over the years.
I think that’s a credit to my coach because he comes out and does extra training days with me every week in the season. His commitment to it is second to none
Q: Do you love being a goalkeeper?
Hmm, I suppose...I don’t know. I probably didn’t like it as much when I was younger because I thought I was fit enough to play outfield. Now I’m not fit enough to play outfield and I have to play in goals (laughs). And I suppose I get through it.
Q: I’d imagine it’s an interesting relationship you have with your sport as a goalkeeper? It seems as though goalkeepers tend to live inside their own heads a bit more than outfield players do?
Oh yeah! You spend more time giving out to yourself and talking to yourself. It gets worrying as you get older, you’re kind of saying, ‘Am I getting senile or what and I doing here talking to voices in my head! (laughs).
Q: Sounds like an experience!
Yeah! You’re better off not being a goalkeeper!