No player has done more to transform the face of Gaelic football than Stephen Cluxton and the bad news for most of the country is that John O’Leary can’t see the Parnells veteran vacating his post between the sticks any time soon.
O’Leary kept goal for Dublin for almost 18 years before retiring in 1997. Cluxton is fast approaching that mark and his predecessor sees no reason why the 35-year old, five-time All-Star can’t keep on keeping on for the reigning champions.
“I played until I was 37. He’s fit, he’s enthusiastic, he has the hunger for it and (if) the sort of stuff around you is all good why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you go for, hopefully, four-in-a-row? That would be the question?
“The question of retirement: for me it’s the same question if you win or lose because he’s done it for 15/16 championships at this stage and he’s ... very successful, one of the best players of his era without a doubt. Therefore, for him, it’s just about an internal drive.”
He may keep a low profile in a media sense but tales of Cluxton’s work ethic are legion. Declan Darcy, the Dublin selector, was just the latest to detail how he could turn up for training long before the appointed time only to find ‘Clucko’ had beaten him in.
The question is not so much when will he stop but rather why would he?
Cluxton has won four All-Ireland titles, as many national leagues and 13 Leinsters but the manner in which he kicked away the match ball handed to him by Tomás Ó Sé after the 2011 All-Ireland final would suggest a man unmoved by mementoes or records.
Though he scored the title-winning free that day, it is the accuracy of his kick-outs and consistency in finding a teammate, especially when under pressure, that has marked him out as a game-changer and he shows no signs of winding down.
“No, no, there’s no problems with him. He looks really fit, he obviously looks after himself. Being a goalkeeper is lucky, you don’t tend to get many injuries. I’d love to see him keep going for another couple of years.”
O’Leary called time on the back of a Leinster Championship quarter-final loss in 1997. With no back door and the team in transition, retirement was much more attractive than it would be for Cluxton as Dublin continue to evolve and improve under Jim Gavin.
The ‘Cluxton factor’ will migrate from the pitch to the floor of Special Congress later this month when a motion stating that kick-outs will have to travel beyond the 20-metre line as opposed to just a distance of 13 metres will be debated and voted upon.
O’Leary would go further and stipulate that all kick-outs should cross the ‘50’ and bring to an end the slow back-and-forth build-up that has come to be prevalent. Or, as he described it rather more bluntly, the sight of “fellas farting around the ‘45’ passing the ball”.
None of which is of any use to Mayo this weekend.
O’Leary doesn’t see how they can do anything other than push up on Cluxton’s kick-outs. Better to force a longer kick and contest it than stand back and concede possession to a team at complete ease with the ball.
Not that there is any foolproof answer.
“What will typically happen is they’ll push up on the kickout and after 25 minutes some fella will lose concentration. He won’t be where he should be and Cluxton will pick him up on the 40-yard line. It takes immense concentration.”
O’Leary is confident for the Dubs but not overly so, and he sees something familiar in Mayo.
In 1995, he was part of a Dublin team that had lost two of the three previous All-Irelands. The word on the street was that they were a busted flush. Then they went and beat Tyrone by a point in September.
“Yeah, very much like the ’91 team until ’95. Four games against Meath, final in ’92, semi-final in ’93, final in ’94. In some ways ‘95 wasn’t our best footballing year.
“So this thing about winning an All-Ireland final and getting three in a row, it’s about almost just getting there, which Mayo have also done.”
John O’Leary was speaking at the launch of the Up the Hill Jack & Jill charity fundraiser. Bank of Ireland will add €4 per registration with a value of €16 or more for the first 12,000 registrations. www.Jackandjill.ie/upthehill
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