It will likely remain the most revealing account of the enigma since the man himself is unlikely to put pen to paper or let anyone else do so on his behalf any time soon. In it, Leonard recounts the level of dedication Cluxton gave to his craft. “When I was training I was trying to get any edge I could. Initially, I tried to go in earlier than ‘Clucko’ but I couldn’t. He was in at 5 o’clock at training two hours ahead of everyone else. You could never get there before him.”
Before Pat Gilroy changed everything for Dublin, it was Cluxton who led by example in action, arriving training so early as Leonard recalled but also on his own kicking 100 frees every night of the week. Under Jim Gavin, the introvert was compelled to lead by word too. These last couple of years, he hasn’t had much reason to be depressed by results going the other way but there were times when he would lock himself away after defeats. Cluxton was a star before Gilroy took over but with the assistance of an uber-professional set-up he became even better.
His kicking action was analysed and played back to him so that he became aware of his best technique and what guaranteed him finding his intended targets. As the glare of the spotlight grew on him, he had to shine brighter.
A five-time All-Star, his personal accolades – 2011 and ’13 – have dried up since he started collecting All-Ireland medals. He looked a cert for one until his rattled period before half-time against Kerry but a sixth gong will be his should he do what he has done best over the years and bounce back. Yet, there remains the question what can we expect from the 34-year-old on Sunday – a masterclass moment or a meltdown one?
Arguably the greatest performance Cluxton has given in a Dublin jersey – and there are many. Of the 22 Dublin kick-outs, they won 19 of them. It was evident Cluxton was keeping the ball away from Aidan O’Shea. Statistics showed those three kick-outs were all lost within eight minutes in the first half.
What makes Cluxton such a majestic footballer is his determination to play. It may have taken years to have team-mates on the same wavelength but they all now realise, like him, that a dead ball is a chance to attack. A perfect example came in this game after Darran O’Sullivan fisted a ball wide. No sooner had the umpire signalled as such that Cluxton was preparing to ping a ball 60 metres down the field into the path of Diarmuid Connolly. Dublin’s kick-out success rate was 70% that afternoon.
In his 11th season, there was almost something poetic about Cluxton sending over the winning free. As he said afterwards, he felt no pressure as the worst thing that could have happened was he missed and the game would go to a replay. To have the composure and clout to split the posts as he did was the mark of a legend. On a day Dublin lost more than 50% of their kick-outs, that part of Cluxton’s game was slightly amiss but he more than compensated elsewhere.
Cluxton’s quick kick-outs are engrained at this stage but it was on this occasion the merit of them was truly seen in another typically composed performance by the netminder. After Kildare had scored the equaliser through Eamonn Callaghan, rather than slow things up as a 14-man team might do – Eoghan O’Gara was dismissed after 40 minutes – and having struggled to find his men for a lot of the second half Cluxton chose to restart quickly and the play developed into the controversial free which was won and then scored by Bernard Brogan.
Cluxton was immense, saving twice from Eoin Bradley in the closing stages but delivering a superb kick-out performance which was true with a thoroughly deserved All-Star season for the Parnells man. A three-point victory in the end, but for Cluxton’s sharpness Dublin were goosed.
Tommy Lyons hung him out to dry after the game – “They tell me that Stephen Cluxton threw a kick and if he did, he deserved to go as well. It was ridiculous stuff — your goalie getting sent off. It turned the whole game.” There was little need to tell Cluxton he had done wrong in kicking out at Stevie McDonnell even if he had been provoked. Down to 14 men and Bryan Murphy replacing Johnny Magee, Armagh controlled the final quarter and progressed.
Jack O’Connor was manager but the analysis provided by current boss Éamonn Fitzmaurice on Cluxton’s restarts gave Kerry the password to breaking Dublin’s code. Kerry, learning their cues off by heart, pushed up and made the field feel so claustrophobic for Cluxton, he was not able to give his team any foothold. No other game affected him as much.
The game ended in a draw but it was a scramble for Dublin after Cluxton was shown a straight red card for reacting to Kevin McLoughlin who was trying to delay his restart. “(McLoughlin) was in front of the ball but he tripped him and we can’t have any complaints with that,” said Jim Gavin at the time before adding, “Life is full of mistakes. We all make mistakes in life.”
Whether it was a lack of focus or something else, Cluxton’s finish to this game was so removed from the largely unflappable player we know him to be. If not for John Small, Andy Moran’s dispossession of the goalkeeper could have been the winning of the game for Mayo. His kick-outs were poor in those closing stages. He also struck a late long-range free wide, which would have avoided a replay.
There will be well-made points that the 2010 Leinster semi-final against Meath, when he was beaten five times, should have been included here. And, yes, last month’s game is freshest in the memory but that seven-minute funk of his was so alarming from a Dublin perspective. The resolve shown by Cluxton and his colleagues to recover – Cluxton didn’t lose another kick-out – was tremendous but to concede 2-4 in such a short space of time is not so champion-like.