It isn’t so long since Alan Brogan and others were speculating as to whether Stephen Cluxton’s guardianship of the Dublin nets would stretch past the quiet one’s 40th birthday.
Only a handful of months, in fact, but the All-Ireland champions are already discovering what life come high summer might be like without the man who has made more championship appearances than any other.
Jim Gavin’s goalkeeper and skipper will be 37 next December and he has started every championship game for his county since 2004. It’s a remarkable run but one likely to end come Sunday’s Leinster final against Laois.
Injured, and subsequently replaced, in the incident which saw Longford’s James McGivney dismissed in the provincial semi-final, Cluxton is rated highly doubtful for this weekend’s appointment in Croke Park.
Gavin spoke obliquely of his chances at a press conference yesterday morning, intimating that it would be the player’s choice and that he had taken part in some training, but the custodian’s damaged ribs make his participation unlikely.
If that proves to be the case then Evan Comerford, who deputised off the bench against Longford, will become the first goalkeeper other than Cluxton to start a summer tie for the Dubs since Bryan Murphy against Westmeath 14 years ago.
Cluxton was suspended for that provincial quarter-final.
Comerford is in his early twenties, and only broke into the Ballymun Kickhams senior side last season, but he was highly-rated in his underage days and Gavin spoke glowingly of his mental and physical attributes this week.
“And he’s got a great knowledge of the game. He knows exactly what he wants his players to do for him as a goalkeeper. He has always been an excellent shot-stopper and he’s developed a repertoire of kicking skills. He has a bright future ahead.”
Many has been the man — Michael Savage, Shane Supple and Jason Leonard among them — who had to sit and wait in what proved to be the forlorn hope that they would get the chance afforded to Comerford in unforeseen circumstances last time out.
He dealt well with having to come on in the 23rd minute although Laois will surely examine his abilities to a greater extent than a 14-man Longford outfit that didn’t force a save and one that opted against pushing up on the Dublin kickouts.
It is Cluxton’s pioneering work on that aspect of the game that has marked him out as one of Gaelic football’s most influential characters so his absence would offer Laois an obvious avenue of exploration for potential profit.
Ultimately, Dublin will be expected to deal with the challenge of Laois with a degree of comfort regardless of who they have between the posts and the reigning league, Leinster and All-Ireland champions are in rude health elsewhere. Jack McCaffrey, Cian O’Sullivan and Paul Flynn all appeared off the bench against Longford after injury issues while John Small and Davey Byrne will both be “back soon” from their ailments, according to Gavin.
It all makes for an encouraging landscape for the championship favourites whose eyes are most certainly on bigger fish than the country’s most landlocked county and a 13th provincial title in 14 seasons (and 57th overall).
Gavin, as he has always done, takes exception to such talk and he was insistent that the prospects of lifting the Delaney Cup for the eight-year on the spin are more than enough to get his side’s competitive juices flowing for now.
“The provincial system on the island of Ireland is very strong, whatever sport you talk about. Be it rugby, hockey or soccer or Gaelic games. We’re Leinster men are we’re very proud of it and the style of football in Leinster is generally very attacking based. It’s still a competition that we want to win so we place great stock on it and we’re just delighted to be back in another Leinster final and competing against an excellent Laois team.”
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