Dublin have missed Stephen Cluxton’s influence

Dublin v Tyrone
Today: Croke Park, 7pm
Referee: D Gough, Meath
TV: Setanta Ireland
Bet: Dublin 1/4, Tyrone 7/2, Draw 10/1

Stephen Cluxton: Dublin’s win rate without him stands at 54.5%.

Three league games down and no disrespect to Sean Currie but in Dublin right now the wind cries Cluxton. In the capital, the world doesn’t seem righter when he’s between the posts; it just is.

Not since he made himself the first choice in 2002 has he been this long absent from the team and the withdrawal symptoms are smarting as indicated in Killarney last weekend. There is reason to suggest Cluxton too would have struggled, so impressive were Kerry on pressing on their opponents’ kick-out. But then could he have fared any worse?

Yet to line out for Dublin this year, Currie in five games and Lorcan Molloy in three, his appearances all coming in the O’Byrne Cup, have stood in for the captain. Before this year, Cluxton missed just 19 league games. He wasn’t available against Tyrone last year because of a dismissal against Mayo.

However, for the vast majority of the other times he didn’t start for Dublin, managers simply wanted to give his deputies a chance until this year when injury has been a deterrent.

From the time Cluxton replaced Davy Byrne for the Leinster clash with Longford in 2001, he’s been ever-present in the championship but for the 2004 provincial game against the same county because of suspension.

As of now, Dublin’s win rate without Cluxton stands at a rather average 54.5% across league and championship (played 22, won 12, drawn 3, lost 7). Since 2010, Dublin with Cluxton have a 74.3% win rate in the competitions (played 70 won 52 drawn 4 lost 14).

Cluxton’s championship record reads even better. In the 71 games he’s started, Dublin have won 53, drawing three and losing 15, which amounts to a 74.6% win rate. In those games, he has kept 41 clean sheets and conceded 43 goals. In 77 league matches he’s enjoyed 33 shutouts and beaten for 57 goals.

Forgive the mountain of statistics but it is arguably the best way of analysing the value of the best goalkeeper of his generation. There’s also the fact he’s scored 0-46 in the championship since he took over 45s/long free duties in 2010 including the All-Ireland winning thump in 2011.

And then, of course, there’s his strongest suit: kick-outs. In the 2013 All-Ireland final against Mayo, Dublin won 20 of their 22 restarts. Cluxton wasn’t just vital in that victory; he was fundamental. Compare that success to last Sunday’s stats-sheet where Dublin claimed just 11 of their 20 kick-outs and you get an indication of his importance.

Of course, such convincing data prompts teams to target his kick-outs. Or at least should. Make Cluxton tumble and Dublin will fall like dominoes. It would be fair to say Eamonn Fitzmaurice is obsessed with them going back to his time as a selector under Jack O’Connor. When Kerry stamped Pat Gilroy’s “startled earwigs” in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, it wasn’t Colm Cooper’s early goal or the assuredness of Mike McCarthy that won them the game. The number they, masterminded by Fitzmaurice’s swotting up on Cluxton, did on him was the clincher. Afterwards, Kerry players divulged to their fallen opponents over drinks how much they had studied them. Kerry midfielder that day Seamus Scanlon remembers the amount of homework compiled on the Parnells man. “We watched a lot of videos of him and Dublin before we played. The onus was on our half forwards and corner forwards to push right up to stop their short kick-out and force him to kick it out into midfield.

“He’s improved a lot since that game but Dublin at the time had a huge emphasis on getting primary possession and starting attacks straightaway. We nullified that and it disrupted the possession they needed.

“A lot of teams, even our own Kerry boys, are starting to follow his lead. Unless you’ve an excellent high fielder who will win possession more often than not, you’re not going to kick it that far. But there are few keepers of Cluxton’s calibre. He can pinpoint his kick to space and most of the time it goes to his man.”

It remains to be seen how Cluxton will fare this season with the new match regulation introduced putting an end to ballboys. In Croke Park, the speed with which they fed balls to Cluxton in Croke Park compared to opposing goalkeepers was an issue Fitzmaurice picked up on last year. Somehow, you would think the 33-year-old is wily enough to get around it.

His return, whether it is this evening or later this month, can’t come quick enough. There may be something suspect about Ger Brennan’s stock having risen since missing last year’s All-Ireland semi-final but nothing is untoward about Dublin’s bemoaning of Cluxton’s nonappearance. His absence has made the Hill grow quieter.


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