Stephen Cluxton: The skinny lad in goal who forged Dublin’s endless empire

This week marks 20 years at number one for a generation’s private, peerless heartbeat

Stephen Cluxton wearing the gloves during a Leinster SFC semi-final in 2001. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Stephen Cluxton wearing the gloves during a Leinster SFC semi-final in 2001. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

This is how it was. Twenty years ago this week, Dublin manager Tommy Carr was in these pages telling Ian O’Riordan that John O’Leary might have to come out of retirement for their Leinster opener against Longford. Davy Byrne was injured and even though O’Leary was four years retired and had just turned 40, Carr wanted him as cover. Young Cluxton from the 21s was going to start. But what if something went wrong?

It didn’t, as it goes. Stephen Cluxton fared just fine and the Dubs walloped Longford 2-19 to 1-13. Late on, with the game long gone, future Longford manager Pádraic Davis won a free close to goal and saw that only Cluxton and Paul Curran were standing on the line. Bang. Consolation goal.

In the moment, history never feels too heavy. Jim Gavin replaced Dessie Farrell late on, a 15-minute cameo that turned out to be his last championship appearance. You would presume that a nothing game against Longford lingers in the mind of virtually nobody - nobody except the two most important drivers of Dublin’s greatest ever team.

Stephen Cluxton pictured during a league fixture in 2002. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
Stephen Cluxton pictured during a league fixture in 2002. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Outside the line-ups, Cluxton barely got a mention in the following day’s papers. One of the GAA’s greatest careers began unobtrusively and generally unremarked. The goal was a poxy one to give away but nobody hung it around his neck. If anything, his defence got the blame for switching off with the game in the bag. For the Dublin football team, it wasn’t untypical of the times.

Can you imagine it now? A quick one catching them with just a single defender on the line? An opposition freetaker allowed a snapshot with nobody blocking his route to goal? It just wouldn’t happen. The modern Dublin defence would rather spend an afternoon in the zoo cleaning tiger teeth than cough up one of those and have to face their goalkeeper afterwards.

At least they’d know the tiger would stop chewing on them eventually.

Mystery

Twenty years. Imagine. Cluxton has been the Dublin goalkeeper since before 9/11, before Saipan, long, long before Facebook. When he made his debut on May 27th 2001, we hadn’t started spending Euros yet. The GAA hadn’t got rid of Rule 21 yet, never mind Rule 42. David Clifford was two-years-old.

He has togged out with players born as long ago as 1969 and as recently as 1999. He has lined up for the anthem with Dubs who made their debut in 1988 and others who got their start in 2020. Nine different sub-goalkeepers have had their go in his shadow, with Michael Shiel of St Sylvester’s the latest last weekend.

And yet, for someone who has been in the public eye for 20 years, Cluxton is famously a mystery to the wider the world. There will never be a book. There will never be a sit-down interview outside of captain’s duties on the night of an All-Ireland final. He has an aggressive lust for the lowest key possible, a hypochondriac’s aversion to the slightest pimple of hype.

“You have to understand that for the first eight years he was on the team,” says Pat Gilroy, “Dublin took a lot of flak and they got a lot of praise and probably neither was fully deserved. He saw way too many times how Dublin teams had a big fall after they got good press and so his whole view of it became, ‘Well, there’s nothing in this that will help me so I’m just going to stay away from it.’ It is purely to stay focussed.

“I did so many charity things with him and he was always pushing to do more - but only on the basis that there’d be no press at them. He does so much charity work that nobody hears about because the one thing he’d say to any charity was that at the first sight of a journalist, he was out of there. The poor charities probably would have been hoping for a bit of publicity but he just never wanted to get drawn into that world, good or bad.”

It is, of course, entirely admirable that he has no truck with the game’s fripperies. It isn’t a pose, either. Paddy Andrews played with Cluxton for a dozen years and saw every side of him. He never saw a put-on.

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton with Marty Morrissey at Dublin’s 2019 ‘homecoming’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton with Marty Morrissey at Dublin’s 2019 ‘homecoming’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

“Every player says they don’t read the papers,” Andrews says. “But half an hour after the game you see plenty of them on the bus typing their name into Twitter. Clucko genuinely does not give a shit about any of that. It’s not a mask, it’s not fake humility, it’s not any of that. He wants to play, he wants to win. That’s all.

“Like, people are always saying he changed the way Gaelic football is played. I don’t know how anybody would be able to rise above something like that being said about them. No matter how humble you are, no matter how devoted you are to the process and all of that stuff, part of you would have to be going, even in quiet moments, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool that people think that about me.’

“But nothing like that would ever enter his head. That’s just not the way he thinks at all. He knows people say it obviously but it couldn’t have less effect on him.”

Ideas, ideas

This is how it changed. In the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo, Dublin won possession from only 10 out of Cluxton’s 21 kick-outs. This wasn’t considered an outrage or even particularly a failing. Certainly, it didn’t diminish him in anyone’s judgement. He was the All Star goalkeeper at the end of the season, just as he had been in 2002 and just as he would be in 2007. He was 24-years-old and accepted by all as one of the top three goalkeepers in the game.

He wasn’t too keen on short kick-outs at the start

The game is on YouTube. By today’s standards Cluxton looks like a club goalie. Every kick-out is long and straight and mostly up for grabs. If there was variation, it was the occasional Dublin forward coming deep to add an extra body. But everything was kicked out across the Dublin 45 - and across midfield if possible. That’s just how it was.

“He wasn’t too keen on short kick-outs at the start,” Gilroy says. “He felt it was better to get the ball far away from the goal. But when it was discussed among the group, we teased it out to saying that maybe you could do both. You could draw a team in on top of you with a few short ones and make more room for the long ones. And once he saw logic in it, he really went after it.

“The thing with Stephen is that he is voracious for knowledge. He will leave himself open for information. When I was involved and obviously in the past decade, he has been surrounded with players and coaches who think about the game and see it in a different way. He has an unbelievable talent for pushing guys to put forth ideas. And then working on them until they come off.”

Over time, it became the literal starting point for everything. Winning their own kick-outs went from aspirational to non-negotiable. “It came down to percentages,” says one ex-teammate. “There are 50-something kick-outs in a game. If we secure 95 per cent of ours and 15 per cent of theirs, we control the game. Once we have possession, it’s a matter of moving the ball around and waiting for a one-on-one to happen. But it all starts with him.”

He went to work. And he put everyone else to work as well. Ideas, ideas. In the early days of opposition sweepers, the easy out was always a short ball to one of the corner-backs. And he wasn’t averse to it, not at all - possession is ten-tenths of the law. But it was predictable if they kept doing it and predictable is never good for long.

So he went to management and said he was thinking of every once in a while aiming for the opposition sweeper and kicking it directly down on top of him. His reasoning was that no sweeper, however disciplined, would be able to resist coming up and claiming a big kick-out.

But if the Dubs around the middle third knew it was coming, they could get in there and make it a 50/50. And with the sweeper out of commission, there’d be an ocean of space in behind. Suddenly, the reward for winning that 50/50 increased in value. It was an even money shot that paid out at 4-1.

Stephen Cluxton leads his team out ahead of the 2019 All-Ireland final replay against Kerry. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Stephen Cluxton leads his team out ahead of the 2019 All-Ireland final replay against Kerry. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“He’s a genuine tactical genius,” says one former member of the Dublin panel.

“His thought processes when it comes to kick-outs are sometimes even nearly too complex for some of the players. He is always probing players and evolving the kick-out because he doesn’t want the opposition to work out what Dublin are doing. So he changes it up each year.

“He’s paranoid about it. Paranoid that he will get worked out. That’s why Mayo always freaked him out a bit. They were so good at pressing up high, at changing what he was seeing. He knew that if they hit on a game where they worked him out, then it would be the difference between winning and losing an All-Ireland final.”

“You have no idea the work we did on kick-outs before every game,” Andrews says. “Our kick-out, opposition kick-out, just loads and loads of analysis. Clucko was leading that, all the time. Didn’t matter who we were playing, their kick-out was analysed as if it was an All-Ireland final and we drilled our own kick-out as if it was an All-Ireland final. His appetite for it has never waned. Whereas for some of us, it definitely became a chore.”

Badminton and McAteer

Outside of making Dublin an endless empire, Cluxton’s big sporting love is badminton. Indeed, his first recorded appearance in The Irish Times was in February 1996, when the down-the-page badminton results recorded a win in the Under-14 Boys section of the Northside Juvenile Tournament at Baldoyle, S Cluxton beating M Burke 15-3 15-7. He still plays to this day, partly for enjoyment, partly because it keeps him flexible and aids his agility.

In the end, Stephen just got sick of it and turned around and gave him a dig

In 2015, one of his maths students became Irish senior champion despite only just having turned 15. Nhat Nguyen arrived in Dublin from Vietnam at the age of six and took up badminton because his dad played it. As he rose through the ranks, his school gave him leeway to see how far it would take him.

Cluxton taught him maths in third year and physics for the Leaving Cert, mentoring him along the way. On the back of Nguyen’s incredible ascent, he set up a badminton team in the school. Nine weeks from today, assuming the games go ahead, all of St David’s Artane will be glued to their TVs as Nhat Nguyen takes the court at the Tokyo Olympics.

Nhat Nguyen is set for the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Nhat Nguyen is set for the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

He’s a soccer head too, of course. Big Manchester United fan off the field, a sharp and tidy central midfielder on it. The famous picture of him dishing out that left hook to Jason McAteer in a charity game in 2011 came about as a direct result of him bossing the middle third. Gilroy was playing in the game and saw how it unfolded.

“He was the best player on the pitch and you could see this was annoying McAteer because he kept biting at him and leaving a foot in, basically getting pissed off because Stephen was well fit for him. In the end, Stephen just got sick of it and turned around and gave him a dig.”

The shark in the tank

Above all else, he is the conscience of the eight-time All-Ireland champions. “The shark in the tank,” is how one former player describes him. “Players, coaches, everyone in the group is kept on their toes by him.”

At our training ground in DCU, he used to take 40 frees from the bit of the pitch that you come to first as you come out of the changing room door

By word and by deed. In November 2009, Gilroy had a challenge game organised in Monaghan on the night of Ireland’s second leg World Cup qualifier against France - or what would later be known as the Thierry Henry game. He wasn’t exactly getting full-throated sign-ups for the trip to Inniskeen - it was pre-season, the weather was brutal, Monaghan were a dose to play against and there was a game on the TV. Cluxton heard the moaning and immediately told Gilroy he’d be there.

“I said look, you won’t be playing,” Gilroy says. “I think I needed to take a look at Michael Savage so I said the most he’d get would be a half. He said no problem. I think we only had 18 fellas in the end, something like that. And our freetaker Blaine Kelly got injured in the game so I asked him would he mind going on and playing corner-forward to take the frees. Again, he said no problem.

“That night was where the idea for him to become the freetaker came from. He had never done it before but he went out and I think he kicked five points from frees. That was without prep, without him or me knowing that we were going to ask him to do it. So we figured if he was able to do that with no planning, he would surely be able to do it in games with a bit of practice.

“At our training ground in DCU, he used to take 40 frees from the bit of the pitch that you come to first as you come out of the changing room door. Every night, 40 frees from that spot. That was more or less the exact spot that the free against Kerry came in 2011. As soon as it was given, we all went, ‘Well there’s no chance of him missing this.’”

Stephen Cluxton kicks his famous winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Kerry. Photograph: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton kicks his famous winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Kerry. Photograph: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile

Often, it requires neither word nor deed. Like the time in 2016 when the Dublin team coach was coming back into Dublin after a match down the country. As it passed Commercial’s Hurling Club on the M7 just after the turn-off for Rathcoole, Cluxton saw the huge billboard AIG had erected for all to see. Big letters, leaning out over the motorway, welcoming drivers to Dublin - ‘HOME OF SAM’.

Immediately he was up the front of the bus, tapping management on the shoulder, ready to launch. Imagine the amount of players, coaches, supporters and whoever else from other counties driving past that every day. Imagine how pissed off they’d be, how much motivation it would give them to stick it to the Dubs and their Home Of Sam sign. It has to go, Jim. Has to.

Before a word was even out of his mouth, Jim Gavin had his hand up, saying, “I know, I know.” Calls were made, the sign was changed. There’s still a billboard there but when you pass it today, you see two under-12 girls in Dublin jerseys.

Tranquillity

One last story. It was getting close to dawn on the morning after the 2011 All-Ireland final and Gilroy was ready to finally locate his bed. His team had left the city humming through the night, those 16 years of rot and mould wiped away at the stroke of Cluxton’s well-practiced boot. Now it was time for a few hours of happy, contended sleep.

Or not. Cluxton saw him shaping for his exit and collared him.

“You’re not going to bed, Pat?”

“Ah, I am, yeah. We’ve to be up for the hospitals and all that in a few hours.”

“You’ll be fine, don’t worry. Come on, I have breakfast organised for us.”

“Where?”

“The Boar’s Head.”

“Ah Stephen…”

“No, come on, let’s go.”

Half an hour later, a party of six knocked on the door of the Capel Street pub - Gilroy, Cluxton, Eoghan O’Gara and their partners. Landlord Hugh Hourican welcomed them in and turned the lock behind them. He set them up with breakfast, handed them the morning newspapers and told them to relax, that he wouldn’t be letting anyone else in.

Stephen Cluxton lifts Sam Maguire in 2019. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Stephen Cluxton lifts Sam Maguire in 2019. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Somewhere along the way, without Gilroy ever knowing, Cluxton had arranged for them to have this small slice of tranquillity. Away from everyone and everything, a couple of hours burgled for themselves from the madness of the city outside.

“We were stone-cold sober by this stage and we just had great fun,” says Gilroy. “We sat there chatting about the match, just enjoying being together. That was all him. He said to me, ‘Right, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll meet you in here every morning after we win an All-Ireland final.’”

That was a decade ago and they’ve kept their date together seven more times since. What was unimaginable in May 2001 is now routine. Nobody has done more to make it so than the skinny lad in the number one jersey.

This is how it is.

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