John Divilly: Ultimate professional Cluxton a joy to watch

Roger Federer and Stephen Cluxton are both 35 years of age. Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title yesterday while in Croke Park, Dublin captain Cluxton collected his 11th piece of silverware as the Dublin skipper, writes John Divilly.

Both have picked up numerous other titles through their careers, but it was fitting yesterday both veterans were on top of their game. There are still a few doubters out there that debate whether Stephen Cluxton is the greatest goalkeeper in GAA history. To me he is. He is a joy to watch commanding his troops, sweeping in front of his full backs, taking quick restarts or pinging his long kick-outs into the arms of his AIG men.

He takes absolutely no crap from opposing attackers and doesn’t mind taking the occasional ticking off from the referee just to reinforce that he is the boss of his square. However, I still can’t understand why opposing teams allow him to take his kick-outs so quickly. Everyone knows he will restart short and quickly if allowed. And like a top archer he will strike the ball like an arrow into the red zone every time. Kildare pushed occasionally yesterday and showed what can happen. In the first half, Cian O’Sullivan was penalised for over-carrying after receiving a short restart. Cathal McNally punished the error. When Kildare forced Cluxton to kick 50-50 long balls, Kevin Feeley normally came out on top.

Feeley was immense yesterday and showed his performance against Meath wasn’t like a lottery win — a once-off. He had five splendid marks and hoovered up a huge number of breaks. He had five shots on goal, hitting four frees, two off either foot, and hit a beauty from play, 45m out on the stroke of half-time to leave Kildare only trailing by four points at the interval.

He often outplayed Brian Fenton in the air, something Dublin supporters aren’t used to seeing and will no doubt give other midfielders in the country a sense that Fenton is beatable after all. Brian still gained two marks and countless short kick-outs and breaks and I’m certain Fenton will be Lord of the Skies again in the next round as he will be eager to put that right.

What Fenton was very effective at yesterday was tackling. He
intercepted and turned Kildare players over on several
occasions that led to Dublin counter-attacks and Dublin scores. He constantly fed a marauding Dublin half forward line who were, to me, the main platform for this victory.

Ciaran Kilkenny seems unstoppable and unwavering as the playmaker. He picks up loose ball, 50-50 ball and unselfishly shows for and supports every Dublin player in possession. This mightn’t be visible on your TV screens, but trust me when I say that he never stops working on the pitch for 75 minutes.

Either side of him were two young guns. Niall Scully went deep and was always an option for Cluxton, while Con O’Callaghan was as hot as Jessie James. While his points were obviously very important, his one-two for James McCarthy goal showed his vision and ability to open up defences.

Dublin’s two goals illustrated the difference in shooting techniques. The Jacks’ two goals were daisy cutters. Cool finishes. Whereas Kildare tried to blast a few in. Keith Cribben and Niall Kelly drove points over the bar when composure might have found the onion bag.

I had expected Kildare to employ similar tactics to the Meath game, hitting early ball into their full-forward line. They didn’t do this consistently. They lacked the belief or were afraid of not hitting the perfect pass inside. There were numerous two-on-two opportunities to kick in long ball to their full forwards and the Dublin defence looked vulnerable. They hit an early high ball into Tommy Moolick, who, with a clean catch, could have scored a goal. But they didn’t try this again until the 74th minute when they lofted one into Paddy Brophy and he duly scored.

Daniel Flynn gave Cian O’Sullivan a torrid time in the first half. He won almost every ball that was played in quickly, but fortunately for Dublin a lot of this ball was into the corners or was very delayed. It must have been very frustrating for the Kildare trio of McNally, Flynn and Brophy as they looked like they had the beating of the Dubs’ full back line.

Dublin didn’t employ an all-out sweeper, rather Jack McCaffrey dropped deep most of the time. The down side to Jack sweeping was David Slattery enjoyed a lot of possession. Slattery’s frequent mazy runs meant he was involved in most of Kildare’s positive attacks.

Kildare looked threatening when they ran hard at Dublin and kicked nine great points from play in the first half. The pick of these scores was a bender from Daniel Flynn, who after gathering the ball on the halfway line near the Hogan Stand took off like one of Willie McCreery’s flat racers and skewed over a corker from a tight ankle.

Flynn was bearing down on goal again when the Ballymun governor James McCarthy hit him a sweet shoulder. McCaffrey gathered up the pieces, went from 0-60 kph in five seconds to set up Con for a counter score. That’s one of Dublin’s most attractive and lethal weapons, ability to strip you of the ball and hurt you on the scoreboard. They have brilliant tacklers and super tackling technique. Their main ball strippers yesterday were McCaffrey, McCarthy, Fenton, and Lowndes.

While Con O’Callaghan is steering his way to becoming the “King of the Hill”, that title still belongs to Bernard Brogan. The billboards all around Croke Park have Bernard’s picture with the aforementioned caption and boy did he show us he is still razor sharp. Five shots, five points. Both feet. A defender’s nightmare. Push him to the line, he scores with the left. Let him turn you, he fires over with the right.

The Lilywhites will no doubt regroup. They need to believe in their own footballing ability a little more like they did against Meath. They need to tackle much harder as there won’t be too many bruised Dublin ribs this morning. Ollie Lyons needs to travel deep persistently into the opponent’s territory the next day. Niall Kelly needs to go closer to the goal, as he is a bigger threat to teams when he plays around the ‘D’. Paul Cribben should have gained sufficient match fitness to start the next day. Tommy Moolick and Kevin Feely were beside one another for all Mark Donnellan’s kick-outs yesterday. They need to trust themselves and pick a side each the next day. They are both capable ball winners.

Dublin oozed class at various times. They are the best GAA team I’ve ever seen. Everyone plays for the team. While they have much bigger and sterner battles ahead, their commitment to the pursuit of excellence was on show for all to enjoy yesterday.


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