Stephen Cluxton has spoken about his return from serious injury last season, his obsessive focus on self-improvement, and his admiration for manager Jim Gavin.
In a lengthy interview on the occasion of winning the GAA/GPA Footballer of the Year, Cluxton paid tribute to Gavin as well as his teammates who were also nominated for the award, Con O’Callaghan and Jack McCaffrey.
"I have complete respect for what he (Gavin) does and what he has done for this team. Nobody has worked harder than he has," said Cluxton.
“Con (O'Callaghan) has dug us out of a few holes on more than one occasion and Jack (McCaffrey) the same. Jack had a phenomenal first All-Ireland, he bagged 1-3 that day. Con was fantastic in the semi-final when we needed to turn up the heat.
“And, I think, throughout the team when guys have had poor days, that's the sign and mark of a great team that your team-mates are digging you out. Okay, it's an individual award, but I certainly think that it was a team effort throughout the year to get it.”
The goalkeeper also acknowledged the influence of past leaders and teammates in his career: “When I look back to 2001 and up to 2010, the ups and downs that we had throughout those years, they were very turbulent. Maybe from 2010 onwards we found our feet and started working harder.
I think when you look back on it, I think that time-frame has stood to me. You learn something new from everybody. Whether it's positive or negative you'll learn something from something someone else is doing and you can take. Especially from captains like Bryan Cullen and people like Denis Bastick, some great leaders. Paul Flynn as well, they've all put their shoulder to the wheel. Paul Casey, Tomás Quinn, the list is endless to be quite honest.
“You just take small nuggets from them and you try to bring that into your own game and bring it into your own captaincy.
“I'm very competitive, I would have to say. Medals to the side, it's about going out and trying to compete against the best. And that starts with trying to compete with the goalkeepers that are in Dublin.
“Evan (Comerford) and Michael (Shields) are phenomenal goalkeepers. They're young and they're hungry and probably brought a bit of freshness to me over the last number of years because they want the jersey and I want it too. There's that bit of competitiveness to want to be the best.
“I suppose after that then, it's more or less what is best for the team. I think if I'm not the best for the job I don't have a problem with that. If I've given my all and we come up short, then I don't have a problem with that. I'm definitely hungry and competitive for success. If you get beaten and you're beaten by a better team then hats off and you maybe have to have a look at next year and doing more.”
This year Cluxton focused closely on his own performance in the All-Ireland final and replay: ”When you're down to 14 men in the first game and you're trying to work out scenarios and obviously one of the scenarios is if they can get a goal there's a chance for them to either beat us or get a draw out of it. I suppose up to that point we were relatively comfortable and they just came hard at us. In fairness to Killian, he stepped really hard off his right foot, came around, and planted it into the bottom corner.
“I just thought that at that point I could have done more to maybe come out and get closer to him. Or certainly adjust my feet and try to make a save. I got probably caught flat-footed.
“So, yeah, the following morning I was out with the laptop with the two guys and obviously Josh Moran the goalkeeping coach and we were just trying to figure out what I could have done better, what I should have done better, and we maybe wouldn't have had to play a replay. So I'll blame myself for that one!
I just don't want to let anyone down. I think if I train really, really hard and I made a mistake then I can accept that because I know the hours I've put in. But I suppose in a team game I'm kind of worried I could make a mistake and cost the team and that drives me as well to try to train harder. I did say to the guys at the start of the year that I wouldn't want to let them down during the year.
“So, yeah, this year was fortuitous in the way it kind of unfolded. I'm happy out, I suppose.”
Cluxton had to fight his way back to fitness after picking up serious injuries in the clash with Longford last year:
I broke three bones in my back, had a punctured lung, and I had cartilage damage in my shoulder. I still have dodgy ankles from a long time ago. So it was a struggle to try to get back up to the level I wanted.
“I thought I had gotten up to a really good level up to the Longford game. I actually thought it was the best I had been in terms of my standard in training. I was actually making saves instead of picking the ball out of the net more often than not.
“Yeah, when I got the injuries then it just curtailed all the training and it leads to doubts in my mind then as to my ability at the standard that I want to be at and whether or not it will cost the team in the end. Thankfully the guys got us over the line last year. Then I had to spend five months rehabbing up to maybe February of this year.
“I wasn't really sure then as to whether or not I'd have the grá and the hunger for it because Evan was playing so well in the League. I felt maybe it was his turn to go. But, in fairness, the guys coaxed me back to do another year and I'm delighted I did it in the end, to be honest.”
A science teacher by day, he says the analytical skills needed for the job help him as a ‘keeper.
“Yeah, I'd have to say it probably does. A huge part of my life is analysing things. Certainly when it comes to kick-outs for a team, you're looking at maybe what the opposition might try and you're trying to get the guys to work on something that might never happen, but, if it did, then you have that Eureka moment in a game saying I've been here before in training and the guys know what to do.
“That's kind of the level you're playing at in this day and age. If you asked Jim (Gavin), he's probably sick of me saying, 'we need to do more kick-out training in collective training'. But, in fairness, he does give me the time with the guys and when it works on the pitch you're kind of saying to yourself, great, that's exactly what you want.”
That work has led to credit for revolutionising kick-outs, but the Dublin captain is keen to spread that credit around.
That's it, it's not about me. We formulate a plan, I go back to Jim (Gavin) and have a discussion with him about why I think it might or might not work. Then we go out and see it on the practice field and do a couple of runs with it. We try and hide it from some of the teams so that they don't see what's happening and see if they can respond to it. And if they respond, how are the guys going to respond.
“So there's a lot of moving parts in it, you're dead right. There are some really, really intelligent footballers in our team, all of them. The back six, the two midfielders, the half-forwards and even the full-forwards are sometimes involved in the kick-out. And, you know, the sign of a good team is that when there are these clutch moments they make the right decisions. And, more often than not, the guys out the field make the right run and you pick them out and it's possession gained.”
Oddly, saving a penalty in an All-Ireland final isn’t the ultimate for the Dublin captain.
“It's not for me. It's just part and parcel of what you have to do for the job. It worked out that we ended up getting a replay in the first game. If they had of scored that or any chances subsequent to that, we might not have been in a replay. So you're just so kind of focused on the job at that moment in time.
“I mean, if you were celebrating after saving a penalty and it goes out for a '45 and the next ball comes in and someone tips it into the back of the net...you just have to be on 100 per cent alert and fully-focused all the time and you don't really get an opportunity to have a come-down from something like a save until after the game when you can say, right, you were part of the draw.
“I've probably conceded more than I've saved, to be quite honest. I conceded one last year against Tyrone. Saved one against Tyrone the year previous, I think it was. I think it's just pot-luck, really. Again, you can look at a lot of footage of players in terms of where they place the ball, but sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling.”
Cluxton paid tribute to the group dynamic which has helped Dublin achieve so much: “I'd go to the cinema with someone like Eoin Murchan, Brian Fenton and his partner Sarah, and sometimes Con O'Callaghan.
“Obviously when we're within the championship season you don't obviously get to go out and have a drink with these guys. We get on so well outside of football that I think it makes you that bit hungrier and that bit more willing to put it all out on the line for them. That's the sign of this team, their humility, and just the friendship we have in the group is fantastic.
“Like, if I never won a medal in football for any team, the friendship we have is just better than anything. We kind of live out of each other's pockets for most of the year. In years previously I wouldn't have been that close to guys I would have just gone to training, trained hard, and gone home and that was it. But, for some reason, maybe it's the captaincy or whatever, there just seems to be that kind of friendship there now. I think the best times that you have with these guys are in training.
“That's when you actually have the most joy and fun and the joking and stuff like that. The dressing-room banter and stuff like that, you just can't get it anywhere.”
Dublin manager Jim Gavin is part of that group, though Cluxton laughs that sometimes the dynamic isn’t completely in sync: “He might want one thing and I might want the other! No, I have complete respect for what he does and what he has done for this team.
“Nobody has worked harder than he has. He just spends hours poring over it. I don't know where he gets the time from with his job and family at home. He has been absolutely inspirational to everybody. He has been a huge leader for me and it's probably rubbed off a small bit on what I do. Definitely he's just been phenomenal.”
Cluxton paid tribute to family and friends for their support throughout his career:
“In fairness all of my siblings have had to put up with me at one stage or another. I'd feel sorry for them more than anybody else. I've missed weddings, I've missed baptisms and communions and confirmations and things like that and they've been very understanding. My brother and sisters are just so understanding. Again, without their support I wouldn't have started that journey.
“Obviously my wife has taken on the baton, God love her! You can imagine it's not easy when I come home and have had a poor training session! But it's water off a duck's back for her and I think that works really well for both of us. She has been a phenomenal support and without her I certainly wouldn't be here today.
I didn't play Gaelic Football until I was about 13 or 14. And when I was playing I was playing as a corner-forward in school I was just lucky when I got into goal in school that the coaches I had were fantastic. Brian Talty, a Galway man, Brian Moran, Brian Lavin, two Kerry-men. Those guys got me started into Gaelic Football and on that journey.
“Brian Murphy, another Kerry guy who was goalkeeper at the time with me in the early years. We were starting to put drills together and things like that. Phenomenal fellas have started that. And obviously nowadays Josh Byrne is a phenomenal coach for me, a great character, a great presence to have around. He always comes in with a smile. He's just a phenomenal character.
“But it does start with your parents and their dedication to bring me to games as a child and any sport that was available was a huge bearing on where I am today. Within all those I wouldn't be here, that's for sure.”
And finally, his age - 38 in September or December this year?
“Yeah, December! I'll be 38 in December, getting close to the pension!”