If this was American sport, they’d be called the Class of 2002 and probably the best class sport had known outside the legendary NBA draft of 1984 that gave the world Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton.
The young guns of Gaelic football in 2002 can hardly carry that same star power but it would be fair to say that never in the sport’s history have teenage players come along in one year and made both such an instant and lasting impression as Alan Brogan and the C quartet of Cooper, Cavanagh, Cluxton and Clarke.
That 2002 season when they all were 19, all but one of them was acknowledged at the GAA All Stars.
Stephen Cluxton was chosen as the country’s leading goalkeeper for the year, having helped Dublin to their first Leinster title in seven years. Alan Brogan was nominated for both Young Player of the Year and an outright All Star. Yet if that was the same summer that Tommy Lyons was once the toast of Dublin, it was all the more the summer of Gooch. And yet while that same Mr Colm Cooper must have gone close to being the outright Footballer of the Year, he didn’t even end up being the Young Footballer of the Year, as the All-Ireland success of Armagh and Ronan Clarke’s vital contribution to it had to be duly honoured.
Sean Cavanagh wasn’t invited to the CityWest that night, Tyrone having failed to make it beyond the last 12 of that year’s All-Ireland series, but anyone who had seen his inter-county debut against Armagh that May, when he was parachuted onto the team at full-forward and duly scored a last-minute equalising goal, would have known he was going to be another player to grace the decade.
As it would transpire, Cavanagh would easily have the best sophomore year of the lot of them, winning an All-Ireland, All Star and Young Player of the Year in 2003. None of the other four were even nominated as they endured a season of immense frustration. It was the year Cluxton would see red when kicking out at Stevie McDonnell, Brogan would kick four wides and no points the same day; an exasperated Cooper would be flung to the ground by an unapologetic Ryan McMenamin in the most notorious of All Ireland semi-finals. Even Clarke, who would get to play in that year’s All Ireland final, cut a tortured figure, him throwing his gloves to the ground upon being substituted in an early-round qualifier the abiding image of his season.
But how they would all bounce back, either the following year or the year after. Cluxton and Brogan have gone on to win seven of the last eight Leinster titles available as well as an All-Ireland. Cooper has played in a further seven All-Irelands with his county, winning four, in the process becoming the outstanding player of his generation.
Cavanagh at one point looked his most likely rival to that title before injury restricted him in recent seasons, but he’ll live with that knowing he has fared a lot better on that front than Clarke.
The Armagh man has barely been seen since a championship game with Tyrone in 2009 when Conor Gormley tried to pull him back and Clarke still powered on to fire home a magical goal.
Armagh’s next game was his last championship game. He hasn’t played for the county since a league game in early 2010. And yet all that time after he remained part of Paddy O’Rourke’s panel, the county’s physio service always available to him as he tried to come back from his latest Achilles injury. It’s something we should remember when recalling the much-maligned O’Rourke era; his compassion for a ‘crocked’ player as exemplary as the commitment of Clarke’s.
Clarke manfully came on a few times for Pearse Óg’s in their march to this year’s county final but wasn’t fit to play any part against Crossmaglen and won’t be fit either for Armagh in 2013, according to a disappointed Paul Grimley.
I interviewed Clarke at the end of that difficult second season in 2003. “I want to prove to people, not just in Armagh but all over Ireland, that I can play this game well,” he said. “I don’t want to go down as some flash in the pan.”
He won’t. In years like 2005, 2006 and 2008, he was the ultimate full-forward. What a player he was, what a career he still had. And what a class that Class of 2002 was. Between them that fab five won 10 All-Irelands and 20 All Stars. This was the first year none of them won an All Star and even then two of them were nominated.
They can’t go on forever. Rumours are, Cluxton is contemplating retirement. And when they all do finish up, you can chalk it down: there’ll never be a GAA rookie class like them again.