The world was a much different place in May 2001, when Stephen Cluxton made his first Championship appearance for Dublin, writes Paul Keane.
The Irish pound was still in circulation, the Foot and Mouth disease had just taken hold and the World Trade Centre towers were still standing in New York.
As for Dublin football, it was crying out for a little inspiration after six seasons without success and it arrived in the unlikeliest of forms; a goalkeeper just out of the minor ranks.
Truth be told, Cluxton’s Championship debut against Longford, and subsequent start against Offaly - his two appearances in 2001 - weren’t planned and only materialised as Davy Byrne was injured.
Johnny Magee, the former Dublin defender recalled: “That’s true, I was injured myself and only came on as a substitute against Longford but started the next game against Offaly in front of Stephen,” .
“There was a good bit of hype about Stephen all the same. We definitely knew of his reputation and that there was a strong player coming through.
“When I got to play in front of him it was fairly evident he was going to be a serious talent.
“Straight away he was very calm and composed for a guy who wasn’t even 20. He definitely didn’t look a fish out of water.
“I played with him for a good few years and what I loved about him, for me as a centre-back, was that he was an extra pair of eyes.
“He was like an extra defender behind you, dictating the play. Say I was going out to the wing for a ball he’d be shouting to Paul Casey or Peadar Andrews or whoever ‘get in there and cover Johnny’. It was very reassuring.”
Magee reckons they should have won an All-Ireland together as team-mates in 2002. Ray Cosgrove lit up that summer with goals against almost every team Dublin played yet somehow ended up being the fall guy for a missed free against Armagh in an All-Ireland semi-final.
“Armagh beat us by a point but we were the better team on the day,” said Magee. “They beat Kerry narrowly in the final.”
Armagh provided the opposition again for Cluxton’s 12th Championship appearance in a 2003 qualifier. The Parnells man was sent off and in the subsequent deliberations, Magee was taken off to allow sub ‘keeper Brian Murphy to come in.
Dublin eventually lost and afterwards boss Tommy Lyons blamed Cluxton, saying: ‘it was ridiculous stuff - your goalie getting sent off. It turned the whole game’.
“I felt he was thrown under the bus that time,” said Magee. “He made a mistake but it wasn’t his fault that we were beaten by Armagh. “We were four or five points up at half-time and there were a number of other things that also went wrong which had nothing to do with Stephen Cluxton.”
By the 2005 Leinster final, Cluxton was up to his 20th Championship appearance yet still had no silverware to show for it.
Magee believes that the success Cluxton enjoyed over his next 68 appearances - 4 All-Irelands, 13 Leinsters, 4 National Leagues, 5 All-Stars - is largely down to those early troublesome years.
“It didn’t come on a silver plate for Stephen, I’m not saying he would have taken it for granted anyway but he definitely learned the value of winning a trophy with Dublin,” said Magee.
“He was there in the barren years, no more than myself and lads like Alan Brogan and Barry Cahill, so when they got the big prizes afterwards they knew the real value of them.”
Cluxton is talked about now as perhaps the best goalkeeper ever. He could still play on for another five years and set an appearance record that, even with the arrival of the Super 8 structure in 2018 and the accompanying extra games, will be almost impossible to match. Yet even after 20 or so years at the very top of the game, most of us will only be left with memories of Cluxton the player to tell our grandchildren about, as opposed to Cluxton the man. That’s the way the 35-year-old secondary school teacher wants it with precious little of his true character ever put on public display.
“He’s a lovely fella, off the field he has time for everyone,” said Magee. “He’s a very normal bloke. He plays his cards close to his chest and has no interest in the razmatazz, the media and the corporate stuff. He’s a very closed fella, just goes about his business and goes home. But as a human being, whatever about a footballer, you couldn’t ask for a nicer fella.”
The wheel has a turned a full circle now because while Cluxton initially played second fiddle to Byrne, warming the bench for the last four games of the 2001 Championship, he’s now coached by the Ballymun Kickhams man. Byrne caused some surprise when he quit Dublin in early 2002 at just 30, citing a dip in form as part of the reason. He returned to the setup as goalkeeping coach under Jim Gavin and Magee believes his close relationship with Cluxton is a vital but often overlooked dynamic within the group.
“Davy was meticulous as a goalkeeper, he had very high standards and he gelled straight away with Stephen. I played in front of the two of them and Davy was definitely up there at the same level. He didn’t get the same plaudits or the success but, for me, he was as good as anyone I played in front of. Stephen has just carried that mantle on and it’s great to see them working so closely together now.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.