The highly anticipated showdown between Galway and Mayo reminded me of all those FA Cup finals I used to watch as a kid.
You’d get up early to watch the wall-to-wall BBC coverage, fearing that you’d miss one of the 500 or so pre-match interviews with everybody from former players to the club tea ladies.
It was all hype and bluster, building the game up into something of a fantasy that it was always going to struggle to live up to. Invariably, from my recollection at least, most of those games were dull 1-0 affairs.
It was much the same in Salthill last Sunday.
Most of it was the same grey shade of bland as those boring Wembley days that never came close to hitting the heights we expected.
Outside of Sunday’s result, Mayo sustained a more significant long-term loss with their influential midfielder Tom Parsons suffering a terrible leg injury.
The absence of his energy and hard running will severely curtail their chances of progressing back to the big house in August.
It was one of those injuries that made you turn away wincing, but hopefully, he can make a full recovery and get back playing championship football again next season.
He, like the rest of his Mayo colleagues have been Dublin’s closest challengers for the past few years, primarily as they’ve been the best equipped athletically to run with them and put pressure on their kickouts to try to make it somewhat uncomfortable for them off the tee.
Perhaps this season, that task may be slightly easier.
For well over a decade now, we’ve been extolling the majesty of Stephen Cluxton’s left pegged deliveries to keep the Dublin machine running smoothly. He remains the single most impactful player of the modern generation, in my opinion.
No other player, including some of the greatest to ever pull on boots have altered the direction and shape of the game in near the same way.
His handling and shot stopping are matched and even surpassed by others, but his restarts are what put him head and shoulders above the rest.
It’s a fair argument, that if you put Cluxton in goals for Mayo, Kerry, Galway or any of the other contenders that his completion percentage off the tee would decrease rapidly without the same willingness and athleticism of those Dublin receivers who are constantly making intelligent hard runs and who genuinely want the ball.
Too many defenders from other counties make runs more as a show of tokenism, but really are as happy if they don’t get to the ball. Those Dublin defenders, midfielders and half forwards all have the honesty and ability to want the ball from the kickout.
That makes it eminently easier on their goalkeeper.
As does playing most of their games in the vast expanses of Croke Park. There’s more room to be found there than anywhere else in the land, and that familiarity helps.
But with that being said, he was still the guy who has helped make Gaelic football into the much faster game we see in front of us today — with the freedom from Dublin management to do so.
Short kick-outs were always seen as a high-risk strategy, and he needed the backing of successive gaffers to be allowed to really express himself from the restarts, instead of just lumping it out the middle like every other generation since Hayes Hotel.
He is responsible for making the big man in the middle virtually extinct. Unless you can run like a gazelle too, managers won’t entertain you. Dublin and Cluxton are the benchmark, and if you can’t run with them, he’ll expose and exploit you.
Think about it; take the top six contenders, how many midfielders are over 6’4”, 6’5” in today’s game?
He has increased the fitness demands at the top level of the sport by dramatically reducing the restart time between the ball going dead and having it back in play.
Traditionally, that was a period for everybody to catch a breath, but now every goalkeeper in the country is trying to get it off the tee in under six seconds. The Cluxton effect. Pedal to the metal stuff for 70-plus minutes.
My point is, he has changed how the game is now played, and that effect has trickled all the way down to clubs all over the country.
He remains the most influential and important piece of the Dublin puzzle. And the only piece that the Dubs just can’t do without.
Look at what the absence of a player as influential as Diarmuid Connolly has done to them so far this season, Bernard Brogan as well… you’d hardly have noticed.
They’ve just got on with it and scarcely missed a beat. They’ve lost the likes of all-star defenders Rory O’Carroll in his pomp, so too Jack McCaffrey for a spell and people waiting for their demise were left disappointed.
For all the talk about the huge inequality of resources and funding at their disposal, all the shirt sponsorship in the world won’t be able to replicate what Stephen Cluxton brings to Dublin when he is no longer between the sticks.
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In a bid to try and negate his influence, this year we’ve seen the introduction of the ‘Cluxton rule’.
When under pressure, his stock kickout to maintain possession from a restart is just a short dink to his right-hand side to a player rushing in from the 21.
Philly or Johnny Cooper or somebody else would gather it around the 13 metre line before launching another attack. It was virtually impossible to stop.
Teams could press up all they wanted, but there was little to nothing they could do to stop the ultra-conservative possession banker when the Dubs really needed a ball.
But that option has now been taken away from them and everybody else. Every kickout must pass the 21 metre line before it can be gathered. It’s kind of flown under the radar so far, and it may not become a huge factor until deeper summer, but the Cluxton rule should make it easier on teams to force him to put more ball up for grabs.
For those counties with real aspirations of rattling the Dublin cage in late summer, they will know that much of their success begins with their vastly experienced goalkeeper and his kickout strategy.
With the confidence they have in their inside defenders to receive the ball facing their own goals, that strategy always had an inflatable life raft to escape on if the ship started taking on water.
Without those rafts, it should make it easier for opposition teams to squeeze them into going longer into a contest for possession when the game is on the line.
It is not that they are incapable of winning those longer bombs, with MacAuley, Fenton, Kilkenny or McCarthy as good and better than what’s out there, but it will force them into doing something that they haven’t had to do for years, something they don’t really want to do. It should give opposing teams the opportunity to make Cluxton put the ball into a 50-50 scrap during crucial minutes of a tight championship game.
For the chasing pack of teams, it will be fascinating to see what game-plan adjustments they come up with to try and exploit this modification to the kick-out rule. It will affect every team, but nobody as profoundly as Dublin.
Since 2011, Dublin won five All-Ireland finals, four of those by a point…
On the battle for inches, every possession counts.
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