Keeper of the flame

When we look back on this era of football in the years to come, who will we remember?

When we look back on this era of football in the years to come we’ll remember the recently retired Colm Cooper (I will have nightmares about 2004 and 2006) with his effortless class and efficiency. Of course, we’ll recall the brilliance of Peter Canavan but we should also remember the Dublin ‘keeper who’s still plying his trade with his back to The Hill.

As a football obsessed child I was told that Sean Flanagan – the Mayo double All-Ireland winning captain of 1950/51 – was the first defender to carry the ball out of defence. Down’s Sean O’Neill heavy-scoring from wing forward in their team of the ‘60s was another revolution of its time. In the 1970s and ‘80s Jack O’Shea transformed midfield play with his pace, power and ball carrying ability.

Revolution

One of the big talking points to emerge out of last year’s All-Ireland final replay was the Mayo goalkeeping confusion. David Clarke being replaced by Rob Hennelly before a black card saw the roles reversed. Many mayo supporters have asked me since then ‘What was the impact and could it have cost Mayo that illusive All Ireland?’. Of course it’s impossible to say, not to mention totally pointless. Mayo lost another All Ireland final and that is it. Mayo were looking for a game changing goalkeeper when the man that really changed the game was between the posts at the opposite end.

Mayo’s David Clarke is a fine shot stopper

Stephen Cluxton is, in my opinion, the greatest goalkeeper to have ever played the game. During the live broadcast of that Mayo v Dubs game, Newstalk’s preeminent commentator Dave McIntyre described my statement on Cluxton as a big shout, but I stand behind it in every instance. Never before has a goalkeeper had a skillset so vast from the fundamental handling and shot stopping to his kicking skills. He has revolutionised the position.

Innovator

During his first couple of seasons nobody was shooting the bullet like kick outs to the wings, now everybody is trying to. As a result the requirements for an inter-county goalkeeper have changed dramatically. You simply must have an excellent kicking range if you are going to be successful in the modern game.

Throughout the 1990s a good kick out was one that travelled as far away from your own goal as possible. Goalkeepers were seen as ancillary to the outfield players with limited impact on the overall game plan. Stephen changed all this. He wasn’t just the last line of defence he became the first and often most important contributor to a Dublin attacking move. A quick restart driven to wide midfield to be collected by a Flynn, Connolly or Macauley, which often led to a successful attack, was in my opinion the first great innovation of this Dublin team.

The Chain

If Jimmy McGuinness can take credit for his impressive Donegal style ‘catenaccio’ then Cluxton is responsible for the first step in Dublin’s ‘total football’.

Stephen Cluxton. Image source: INPHO

His influence is so great that, with respect, I often wonder would the likes of Flynn and Macauley have been as effective if working with another goalkeeper in another system. Of course these players would be great in any team but would they have reached their peaks without Cluxton’s skillset? If you look at the current Dublin team, one without a conceivable weakness, since adding defensive solidity to attacking verve, you can only conclude that they would not have evolved to reach this level without their unique goalkeeper.

Imitation

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and as I have noted all modern goalkeepers and teams have copied Cluxton’s kick outs and quick restarts to such an extent that Congress saw fit last year to introduce the mark to try to incentivise the long kick out such was its prevalence in the game.

Since I made my intercounty debut in 2001 no other player has had a greater impact on how the game is played. Teams have become so preoccupied with replicating Dublin’s kick out strategy that often I feel a more traditional approach might have suited them better.

Every era has had great players that through their innovation and excellence have changed the way the game is played maybe the Dublin captain has had the greatest influence of all. We should cherish his ability while he’s still competing. Maybe not when they’re playing Mayo!

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