KIERAN SHANNON: Captain class driving Dublin and Mayo to greatness

Stephen Cluxton is the hidden force in full view behind one of the country’s greatest-ever teams, writes Kieran Shannon.

few days after his first league game as Dublin manager, Jim Gavin made what can now be seen as a clear statement about his vision for the team though at the time it seemed a rather peculiar decision: Stephen Cluxton would captain the side for the 2013 season.

It especially raised eyebrows in media circles, still burned by the experience from the International Rules trip 18 months earlier when Anthony Tohill’s choice of captain did not engage in any duties with the fourth estate. “In my list of things required to be team captain,” Tohill said at the time, “his ability to speak to the media is not one of them.” A read of a recent book by the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Walker, however, and you might even surmise that someone as calculated as Gavin may even have chosen Cluxton because — rather than in spite — of his aversion to the spotlight.

In The Captain Class: The Hidden Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams, Walker scoured through the history of world team sports before identifying 16 sides that dominated their sport to a previously unprecedented level. And what he found to be the most common denominator wasn’t inspired or tactically-astute management, or financial resources, or even world-leading playing talent.

“The crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness,” he’d conclude, “is the character of the player who leads it.” Towards the start of his treatise, Walker does mention the sports of Gaelic football and hurling and their huge domestic popularity before eliminating them from consideration on the basis of their limited international competition and television audiences. But still, much of what he found can extend to Gaelic Games, especially when it comes to the identity of the two captains that will lead their teams around Croke Park in the parade next Sunday.

Should Dublin prevail, it will be Cluxton’s fourth time to receive the Sam Maguire Cup on behalf of his team, elevating him above a handful of men in both hurling and football who have collected the All-Ireland three times. It will be Dublin’s third consecutive All-Ireland, something no football side has pulled off in over 30 years. In fact since Gavin handed him the armband back in February 2013, Cluxton has only twice failed to pick up any available silverware — the 2014 All-Ireland and the 2017 league which both ended up the property of Kerrymen. Everything else he’s cleaned up — five Leinsters, four leagues and three All-Irelands, a level of dominance unknown in the game.

Cillian O’Connor has yet to get up those steps of the Hogan Stand that Cluxton is so familiar with but, fair to say, should he be the first Mayo man since Sean Flanagan in 1951 to lift the cup, it will qualify as historically exceptional.

As it is, reaching seven consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals at just aged 25 is unprecedented for any player from his county or province. According to Walker’s thesis, the span of the great dominant teams invariably corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player, “and,” he adds, “with an eerie regularity, that person was, or would eventually become, the captain.” Just as Dublin’s every-game every-trophy mindset coincided with Cluxton’s appointment as captain, Mayo’s remarkable streak of consecutive All Ireland semi-finals began in O’Connor’s rookie year of 2011.

“I swapped jerseys with Cillian O’Connor after the semi-final that year,” Paul Galvin would write in his newspaper column 12 months ago. “He scored a goal that day and there was something about his body language that impressed me.... I get the feeling Cillian O’Connor behaves like a champion every day of the week.” In Walker’s view, there are seven or eight notable behaviours or characteristics that are common to most of the Captain Class, some of which the wider public or media might find distasteful. Contrary to the ideal of the All-American hero or great captain, quite a few captains of the historically-great teams weren’t talkative, charismatic or gracious, certainly in their dealings with opponents or the press.

Most of the them, he found, “weren’t fond of the spotlight, didn’t enjoy the trappings of fame and rarely sought attention. Off the field they were often quiet, even introverted. As a group they hated interviews, spoke in bland monotones and treated reporters indifferently. They opted out of award ceremonies and often turned down endorsement deals.” Has anyone ever fitted that profile better than Stephen Cluxton?

The same wouldn’t necessarily strictly apply to O’Connor, the face of one of the most repeated commercials in GAA history and someone frequently put out to face the national media. But that’s largely because of his capacity to bat straight for the team, keep on message and speak in “bland monotones”. Sometimes he won’t even do that. Immediately upon the final whistle in last year’s drawn final, O’Connor bolted straight for the dressing room, while three teammates remained on the field for television interviews. Even though he was the saviour of the hour, kicking a remarkable equalising point, he had already moved on, something that reinforced Galvin’s image of him being a champion in everything that he does.

It’s not only reporters he’s unafraid to piss off occasionally; such ruthlessness can extend to the opposition. A common thread that Walker found in his Tier One captains, such as the All Blacks’ Richie McCaw or Cuba’s trash-talking woman’s volleyball skipper Mireya Luis, was a willingness to test the limit of the rules. Three times over the past 12 months O’Connor has run straight into an opponent, which has seen them black carded — James McCarthy, Galway’s Tomas Flynn, and most recently, Darran O’Sullivan.

It would fit Walker’s description of a Tier One captain, one who recognises “the difference between a leader who worries about how they’re perceived and the leader who’ll drag their team through challenges by any means necessary.” That also means not being afraid of dissent. In his book Walker highlights the example of Philipp Lahm who in an interview publicly questioned the direction and recruitment policy of Bayern Munich. Dónal Óg Cusack, though actually never the captain of Cork during the glorious O’Grady-Allen years, would clearly have fitted Walker’s model, by similarly publicly questioning the support and direction of his board. O’Connor likewise is able to face up to what Walker terms “uncomfortable truths” and do “potentially divisive things”; two years ago it was O’Connor, along with Keith Higgins, who informed Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly in person that they no longer had the confidence of the players.

Something else Walker noted was that in more cases than not, the captain of a historically-supreme team was more a piano lifter than a piano player. Pele never captained Brazil; instead hardened, no-frills defenders called Luiz Bellini and Mauro lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1958 and 1962. Puyol, not Messi, was the Barcelona players’ unanimous choice of captain.

In Dublin, Bernard Brogan will retire never having captained Dublin. Aidan O’Shea has yet to captain Mayo. While you could hardly describe Cluxton and O’Connor as primarily water-carriers, no-one in either set up or in football in general works harder. Stories of Cluxton out practising his frees and kickouts two hours before training are legion. Likewise O’Connor is first on and last off the training pitch in Mayo. And as Walker recognises, that work ethic becomes contagious. The reason these two teams are yet again squaring off in another All-Ireland final is because no two set of players are better at trying to be the best at getting better, a tone set by their respective captains.

During their recent dominance Kilkenny never had a fixed captain, Kerry neither, but you need only read Jackie Tyrrell’s book to realise that it was a Puyol-like figure such as Peter Barry that set the standards which his clubmmate Tyrrell would then carry on. “Peter was the ultimate expression of everything Cody believed in: Honesty, animal workrate, supremely focused, savagely determined, an abhorrence for the media; an absolute dog.” Tyrrell’s words in describing Barry virtually echo Walker’s in identifying the characteristics of the Captain Class.

With the same talent not quite on the senior panel these days, there could be a case for Kilkenny and Kerry to review and park their tradition of the captaincy being reserved for the county champions. Before, there was almost a charm to it, a way of keeping it fresh. This one will be for Gooch. This one will be for Star. This one will be for Fennelly. But when you no longer have a Gooch or Star a Fennelly and your opponents are being led out by a model captain in Cillian O’Connor or Brick Walsh?

Gavin certainly didn’t leave anything to chance in appointing Cluxton, the hidden force in full view behind one of the country’s greatest-ever teams.

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