Kick­ing King brought Gaelic foot­ball­toaw­hole­newlevel

The goal­keeper has played a huge role in es­tab­lish­ing Dublin as the dom­i­nant force in the game

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Malachy Clerkin

Dublin goal­keeper Stephen Clux­ton watches on dur­ing the 2017 Le­in­ster SFC semi-fi­nal against West­meath at Croke Park.

If and when he even­tu­ally hangs it up, Stephen Clux­ton will re­tire with not just one of the great Gaelic foot­ball ca­reers but one with­out many peers across Ir­ish sport. The run­ning to­tal so far is seven All-Ire­lands, 15 Le­in­ster ti­tles, six All Stars, one Foot­baller of the Year – the num­bers would turn your eyes square. If they were all he ever did, they’d be more than just about every­one who ever played.

But we know Clux­ton did more than that. Along with Pat Gil­roy, Jim Gavin and John Costello, he drove the change in the cul­ture of Dublin foot­ball and the cre­ation of the team that did the five-in-a-row. He started life in a Dublin set-up that was glee­fully en­joyed by the rest of the coun­try. When he goes, he’ll leave be­hind him a mon­ster that has eaten the game whole.

And on top of all that, he has gen­uinely shaped his sport. Gaelic foot­ball at its sharpest end is a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent game now than the one that was played when he made his cham­pi­onship de­but for Dublin in 2001. Clux­ton didn’t just ride the wave of all the change – in par­tic­u­lar and spe­cific ways, he was noth­ing less than the wave it­self. Even the true greats of any game don’t usu­ally re­tire with that sort of la­bel at­tached to them.

In that re­spect, it’s im­por­tant to say what we mean. If we say that Clux­ton changed the sport, we can’t be blithe about it. We have to back it up.

So let’s go back. Back to when men were men and kick-outs were long. The ear­li­est full Clux­ton game to be found on YouTube is the 2006 All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal against

Mayo. He was five years into his in­ter­county ca­reer, three on from Tommy Lyons hang­ing him out to dry for his im­petu­ous­ness in a qual­i­fier de­feat to Ar­magh.

At the age of 24, he had one All Star to his name and was about to win his sec­ond. He was a main­stay of the In­ter­na­tional Rules team. In short, he was es­tab­lished as one of the best goal­keep­ers in the coun­try.

Yet when you watch that Mayo game back, it may as well be in black and white. He was a dif­fer­ent player and foot­ball was a dif­fer­ent sport. He took 21 kick-outs that day in 2006 and Dublin only won 10 of them. A goal­keeper do­ing that in an All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal these days would nearly be look­ing to the side­line to see if the sub goalie was warm­ing up. Yet no­body held him up as a rea­son Dublin lost on the day and he cruised to the goal­keeper All Star at the end of the sea­son.

‘Stats are ridicu­lous’

Wouldn’t hap­pen now. Couldn’t. For com­par­i­son, in last year’s drawn All-Ire­land fi­nal, Clux­ton took 25 kick-outs and Dublin won pos­ses­sion from 23 of them. His op­po­site num­ber in the Kerry goal Shane Ryan took 23 and ev­ery one of them was se­cured. Two lost kick-outs across the space of an af­ter­noon wasn’t seen to be out­ra­geous, it was seen as the base level re­quired for suc­cess. It’s what you needed to sur­vive an All-Ire­land fi­nal now.

What hap­pened in the mean­time? Clux­ton hap­pened. Here’s Jim McGuin­ness, talk­ing in the af­ter­math of Done­gal’s All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal win over Ar­magh in 2014. Next up for Done­gal were the Dubs and McGuin­ness was al­ready plot­ting their down­fall. Much of what he had to say, there­fore, ought to be seen through that lens and treated with ap­pro­pri­ate scep­ti­cism. For our pur­poses, how­ever, we can take at face value some­thing he said about Clux­ton that day.

“Stephen Clux­ton’s stats are ridicu­lous,” McGuin­ness de­clared. “Dublin would look for be­tween 70, 80, 85 per cent re­ten­tion on their own kick-outs and that’s un­heard of in Gaelic foot­ball. It gives them a huge plat­form, an op­por­tu­nity to re­tain pos­ses­sion. They have very good foot-passers who can get the ball mov­ing again. All of a sud­den, five se­conds later they are at­tack­ing and get­ting shots off. That’s where the re­lent­less­ness comes in.”

That’s the other huge dif­fer­ence when you com­pare the game now to the one that ex­isted just five years into his time with Dublin. Watch­ing back that 2006 game again, what re­ally jumps out at you is the ram­pant dawdling of the goal­keep­ers when the ball goes out of play.

For the quick­est kick-out Clux­ton took in that 2006 game, the ball was back in play 20 se­conds af­ter the Mayo man took his shot. Those 20 se­conds tally ex­actly with Clux­ton’s slow­est kick-out in the 2019 All-Ire­land fi­nal re­play. Take out stop­pages for in­juries, subs and cards and Clux­ton’s av­er­age time over a kick-out in 2006 was just over 28 se­conds. Do the same for last year’s fi­nal and that num­ber drops to just un­der 14.

What do all these num­bers mean? Sim­ply this. That over the course of Clux­ton’s ca­reer, Dublin reimag­ined the sport and made the kick-out some­thing so much more im­por­tant than merely a means of restart­ing the game. By tak­ing their kick-outs quicker and re­tain­ing pos­ses­sion on more of them, they squeezed the mar­gins and all but re­moved the el­e­ment of chance in­her­ent in the old kick-it-long days.

On the face of it, this might seem like a rel­a­tively small tweak to the norms of the game rather than any ma­jor fun­da­men­tal change. But you only have to count the num­ber of rule changes sur­round­ing the kick-out that have hap­pened in the past decade to get a sense of how sig­nif­i­cant the change in em­pha­sis has been.

Time was, a goal­keeper could knock a short one side­ways or even back­ways to a loose cor­ner back and gain handy pos­ses­sion that way. Not any more. Now all kick-outs have to be taken from the 20-me­tre line and all they have to go for­ward. And since Congress in Fe­bru­ary, a de­fender can’t pass a kick-out straight back to the goal­keeper any more ei­ther. The rule­mak­ers have, by de­sign, all but in­sisted that the ball must be kicked long.

You don’t need to be a ra­bid Hill 16 con­spir­a­to­ri­al­ist to trace these rule changes back to Clux­ton and the Dubs. Pos­ses­sion was the foun­da­tion stone of their dom­i­nance of the last decade. It was ten tenths of the law. Clux­ton was guar­an­teed the ball 20 to 25 times a game – once he could guar­an­tee pos­ses­sion from it, they were away. It rarely mat­tered how short he had to go with it, as long as they kept it. And as long as they did it at pace.

Quicker kick-outs mean less time for an op­po­si­tion breather. But quicker kick-outs also place far more fo­cus on the kicker. Not alone has he to be ac­cu­rate, he has to be a supreme strategist. He has to be the best chess player in the team. He has to see around cor­ners in a way goal­keep­ers were never asked to be­fore Clux­ton. Most of all, he has to do every­thing at speed – not just the kick­ing part but the think­ing part too.

No­body has been bet­ter at strate­gis­ing the kick-out than Clux­ton. Some day when you’re at noth­ing, go back and check out the open­ing stages of the 2017 All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal. Ty­rone have just tapped over a free for their first score of the day and have pushed up en masse to press the sub­se­quent kick-out. It is a clear state­ment of in­tent, a planted flag that tells Clux­ton that they are com­ing for him.

It makes no dif­fer­ence to him. He sticks the ball on the tee and sends a lasered kick-out over them all, clear­ing Peter Harte’s despairing lunge and hit­ting Niall Scully in the chest on the Ty­rone 65. He es­sen­tially puts the ball through a flam­ing tyre from 70 me­tres. Ty­rone’s big move crum­bles to dust.

Legacy

You would not change the game in this way un­less you had some­one be­tween the sticks ca­pa­ble of do­ing it. It’s de rigueur now, of course. It is de­manded of all in­ter­county goal­keep­ers that they have a ping of a strike off the tee and that they be able to pick out the good choices and throw out the bad ones and still get at­tacks started in­side 10-15 se­conds.

When you’re not able to do it, it sticks out a mile. The big day of the 2019 sum­mer was sup­posed to be Kerry v Mayo in Kil­lar­ney, only for Peter Keane’s side to push 12 men into the Mayo half for David Clarke’s kick-outs and end the game be­fore half-time. Dublin did the same to Rob Hen­nelly in the sec­ond half of the All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal and he suf­fered the same fate. Ev­ery­body wants a Clux­ton but there’s only one of him to go around.

It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that the game would have evolved that way even­tu­ally. But there was well over 100 years of goal­keep­ing be­fore Clux­ton came along and none of them saw the game through his eyes. What­ever his legacy in Dublin foot­ball, that will be some mark to leave on the game it­self.

Over the course of Clux­ton’s ca­reer, Dublin reimag­ined the sport and made the kick-out some­thing so much more im­por­tant than merely a means of restart­ing the game

We have a lot of young play­ers com­ing through who I think can de­velop and take those places. I wouldn’t be too wor­ried. Some­times the so­lu­tion isn’t out there; it’s in­side.

– Le­in­ster backs’ coach Felipe Con­tepomi on whether the prov­ince would con­sider fill­ing the Non Ir­ish Qual­i­fied (NIQ) con­tracts now avail­able to them.

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