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Monday 25 September 2017

Cullen: I don't think he will ever be matched

As Stephen Cluxton prepares to equal the championship appearance record, Eamon Carr looks at the legacy of a player who has changed the face of football

Stephen Cluxton issues instructions to his team-mates during last year’s drawn All-Ireland Final against Mayo at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton issues instructions to his team-mates during last year’s drawn All-Ireland Final against Mayo at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Paddy Cullen made his first senior championship appearance as Dublin goalkeeper in 1967.

By the time he retired 13 seasons later he had accumulated a haul of three All Ireland medals, six Leinster, two National League and four All Stars.

"I was 35 when I packed it in," recalls Paddy. "Stephen Cluxton is 35 and he still looks like a lean, mean machine. He's an unbelievable talent who has brought a whole new dimension to the game."

With Cluxton poised to make Gaelic football history this summer, it's easy to recall the impression he made in his first couple of appearances in 2001.

He'd been impressive but, inexplicably, wasn't between the sticks for the Leinster final as Davy Byrne made his return. Dublin lost.

Dublin’s Paddy Cullen fields the ball surrounded by team-mates Seán Doherty (left) and Kevin Moran during the 1977 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Paddy Cullen fields the ball surrounded by team-mates Seán Doherty (left) and Kevin Moran during the 1977 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

The following summer I spoke to Barney Rock, who apart from being a Dublin scoring legend, had played for Stella Maris, had an U17 Ireland cap and had been invited for trials by both Arsenal and QPR.

Future

Barney knew he'd seen the future of Dublin goalkeeping.

"His confidence is outstanding," he said at the time. "He's cool on the ball. He delivers great passes. He has a good kick-out. He can place it well. He's brave and he's able to go."

One man who would have seen Stephen in action from an early age is Brian Talty.

The former Galway player, who's a Parnell's stalwart and former Dublin selector, recalls the emergence of a special talent.

"He was playing at corner-forward and the goalkeeper wasn't in school one day (of a match) and someone said, 'Clucko played a bit of soccer in goal'." he recalls.

"So they said, 'Right, you're in'. He played and maybe didn't play that well. Your man came back and got in and went on to play in the final. Clucko started to play in goal after that."

His introduction to the Dublin camp was equally fortuitous.

"One of the lads was the goalkeeper for the Dublin minors," says Brian. "They were saying they had to get another goalkeeper in as well. Someone said, 'Would it be worth our while bringing in Clucko?' That was it from there on in."

The young man took nothing for granted. Like all great sports people, Cluxton applied himself.

"He worked his arse off," says Brian. "He became what he is today through hard work. Back then you rarely had a full-time goalkeeping coach. But Paul Caffrey brought in Gary Matthews to work with Clucko."

"Even as a minor, the set up that year brought in Brian Moran, a Kerryman who was a teacher in St. David's, and he worked with Clucko," recalls Brian.

It's been Cluxton's accurate kick-outs, prompt decision-making and ability to marshall attacks, that changed the face of football.

"The big thing for teams playing against Dublin has been, 'How do we deal with the Cluxton thing'?" states Brian.

"Back then they worked out a routine with his kick-outs to Ciarán Whelan and, particularly, Shane Ryan," says Talty.

"Then they started with short kick-outs.

Disaster

"That changed everything again. The short kick-out was a disaster for traditional midfielders.

"Now that they're beginning to stop the short kick-out, it's going longer again," he adds.

"It's all changing. Last week when Galway were taking short kick-outs then Roscommon were pushing up on their men, which was crazy."

The radical difference that Cluxton has forced on football can be viewed in better perspective from even further back.

Inconceivable though it may seem, goalkeepers were sometimes treated as lads who hung around with footballers.

"There was a time when the goalkeeper used to place the ball for the kick-out," recalls a bemused Talty.

"You might remember Johnny Geraghty (Galway's keeper during their golden era during the 1960s) would place the ball and (corner-back) Enda Colleran would come up to kick it and drive it out the field. Then they realised they were leaving an extra man out the field."

It should be said that Johnny Geraghty wasn't the only one fulfilling this function.

"John O'Leary and other fellas did change things," says Brian.

"The training the goalkeepers do now is unbelievable. There are two goalkeepers and the goalkeeping coach is working with them continuously."

The first goalkeeper Brian saw working so diligently was Shane Curran.

"I never saw a goalkeeper training as hard as he did when I was involved with Roscommon back in 2000," says Brian.

"Shane had played in goal for Athlone Town or some team. We hadn't seen goalkeepers in Gaelic football doing such full sessions as that.

"But with Clucko, John Leonard, Michael Savage, all those fellows, it's a continuous thing. It's specialist training for what they have to do in a game situation."

Paddy Cullen also played soccer and first played in goal for the late Charlie Walker.

"I played outfield but Charlie said he'd coach me as a goalkeeper," reveals Paddy. "You can be coached but in Gaelic football you need your own savvy as well because the ball is coming faster. Being in goal is a pain in the ass. You have to keep yourself amused and 'on the ball' and keep shouting at backs. So to get out the field at the weekend with your club is great."

Considering Cluxton's achievements, Paddy says, "All in all, he's an enigma. He's wonderful."

When Cluxton was 20, he was already displaying skill levels on a par with goalkeepers with Premier League clubs.

Back then I asked Dave Henderson, who had experience both in England and the League of Ireland, if he thought Cluxton had what it took to follow Dublin icons Kevin Moran and Niall Quinn to a lucrative career with a top English club?

Hendo gave a no-nonsense appraisal of the emerging star.

Control

"A goalkeeper is a goalkeeper no matter what he's playing," he said. "Be it ice-hockey, Gaelic, soccer or whatever. Stephen looks as if he's enjoying it. He carries himself well around the goal. He doesn't seem hurried. He looks in control of what he's doing, which is great. He's made big saves that have often been the turning point in games. His distribution is excellent. He often changes play completely and he's set up scores. And the beautiful thing is, he's not fazed in front of 80,000 people."

That was at the start of his inter-county career. Today, Stephen Cluxton has developed into an even more complete athlete.

Talty points to another critical component of his game.

"Over the last few years, he will take a chance whereas every other goalkeeper is nervous about taking a chance," he notes. "He has All-Ireland medals in his back pocket so he can take a chance. Generally, it doesn't go wrong.

"It's all about practice," adds Brian. "Clucko's kicks in the very early days wouldn't have been fantastic but he practiced, practiced, practiced. That's what he does."

Cullen worries about a future without Stephen Cluxton.

"We'll miss him terribly when he goes," he says. "I don't think anyone will ever be able to match him."

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