O'Leary: Cluxton leads by example
John: 'In 50 years time people will still be talking about the great Stephen Cluxton'
The question of whether Stephen Cluxton would have been as effective a goalkeeper 20 years ago, as he is now, is one John O'Leary has an instant answer for.
"No, he wouldn't," laughs Dublin's 1995 All-Ireland winning captain. "Because I would have been playing."
Given the parallels between the two, O'Leary's admiration is understandable.
"Ah, I think he would, without a doubt," he says, engaging his more analytical side.
"His ability to stop shots and field the ball in the air and make decisions is exemplary. So he would have made it in any era.
"I suppose the way the game has changed in the last ten years has played into his hands to some degree.
"Because he has a skil- set that actually accelerates and accentuates the good in his game.
O'Leary goes on: "His ability to kick the ball with such a high degree of accuracy is just incredible.
"He has set the bar really, really high for what goalkeepers need to be able to do, both in terms of shot-stopping and finding players out the field."
Both men have captained Dublin to All-Ireland SFC victories, both were the pre-eminent goalkeepers of their era but O'Leary confesses: "I don't know a lot about him".
In this, he's not alone.
They crossed paths in 2001, however, when O'Leary was a selector on the Dublin under-21 team that lost to Meath in the Leinster final.
It was from there that he was elevated into Tommy Carr's senior squad and given his debut in place of the injured Davy Byrne in the first round of the Leinster SFC (against Longford).
"He played really well," O'Leary recalls. It was nice because we had taken a bit of a chance on him at that stage.
"Having been in the under-21s and being a goalkeeper, I was very happy because we put him in and he had the attributes and the composure that you need with a goalkeeper."
That Longford game was his first of 88 Championship appearances and today in Croke Park, Cluxton will break the record for SFC games, he has jointly held with Marc and Tomás O Sé since the Leinster final.
"There's no reason why he couldn't go on," O'Leary points out, although he isn't quite sure whether longevity is necessarily Cluxton's thing.
"I think he's that sort of personality," O'Leary observes. "He might just think: 'I've done enough now. I'll go and do something different'.
"He's very private. You don't see much of him in the papers. I think he's likely one day to say 'thanks lads, I'm gone' and there will be no drama about it."
If not, he will achieve another milestone next year - equaling O'Leary's length of service.
This is Cluxton's 17th Championship summer, one shy of O'Leary's mammoth stint.
Cluxton is 35 while O'Leary retired at 36.
"I was there for 18 years, 18 Championships. And in '97, we were beaten in the first round and there was no back door. So the decision was different," he explains.
"So you think 'it's a long way back from here'.
"It's hard to know. You could have knocked another two years out of it. But it's hard to know.
"From Stephen's perspective, there's no reason why he couldn't knock another couple of years out of it," adds the two-time All-Ireland SFC winner.
"It's about appetite, particularly when you've been as successful as he has.
"But the individual appetite can be very dependent on the team one."
Plus, the goalkeeping gig was much more straight-forward in O'Leary's time.
"From a strategic point of view. I would never have been allowed take kickouts that short. There's 'keepers taking 10 yard kickouts that I'd have been dropped for."
As for the captaincy, O'Leary is adamant that there are no downsides to having the team's on-field leader consigned so close to their own goal.
"It's about how you lead by example in training and your commitment and that sort of stuff," he explains.
"So you can see the way he plays the game and how he conducts himself that he has that in spades.
"Then it's about being able to speak to players and players being able to speak to you and possibly being the go-between for players and management at times.
"But ultimately, it's about performance on the pitch."
As for which iconic Dublin goalkeeper will be longer celebrated, the debate doesn't have its closing arguments penned just yet.
It could be argued firstly that Cluxton was in a better team than O'Leary and thus, won more.
Alternatively, you could point out that three of Cluxton's five All Stars were won before he ever got his hands on Sam Maguire, meaning his brilliance wasn't predicated on success.
O'Leary himself believes the evolution of the position he and Stephen Cluxton shared makes the newer man "more important" in the overall scheme of things.
"He's better than me in terms of the way the game has allowed him to contribute more than I would or Paddy Cullen would have in the past," he says.
"But we had some strategy and some routine getting the ball to the middle of the field with Paul Clarke or Paul Curran that wasn't that obvious.
"It hasn't been invented in the last ten years - we were working on kickouts strategies on the past.
"But he'll be the player of his era," O'Leary insists, "a Mick O'Connell-type character.
"Captaining Dublin to three All-Irelands, winning four, the number of Leinster titles (13), All Stars and just his overall play.
"I've no doubt that in 50 years time people will still be talking about the great Stephen Cluxton. Without a doubt. He's the player of his decade …and maybe even two decades.
"Even when Dublin weren't being successful pre-2011, he was still critical to Dublin' team.
"He was one of those players you'd pick out of the team," O'Leary concudes.
"His legacy was well being written before they won their first All-Ireland."
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