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Wednesday 26 September 2018

Dubs keeper is Evan sent

Comerford ready to join elite club if Cluxton is ruled out

Evan Comerford in action for Dublin during the Leinster SFC semi-final against Longford at Croke Park recently
Evan Comerford in action for Dublin during the Leinster SFC semi-final against Longford at Croke Park recently

Scene: A warm July Monday evening on the Northside of Dublin in 2014.

Tucked away in a corner of St Clare's, the sports grounds connected to DCU off the Ballymun Road, two men stand 50 or so metres apart on the pitch where the Dublin senior football team have trained in the summer months since 2010.

Every few seconds, a random call is shouted into the bright summer evening sky.

The man doing the shouting is Davy Byrne, the former Dublin goalkeeper who at the time, is working with Jim Gavin's management team as goalkeeping coach.

A couple of seconds after each shout, a dull, echoey thud can be heard.

Stephen Cluxton stands in a familiar pose, back to goal, facing the pitch on which wheelie bins have been strategically placed in clusters of three or four, lids open.

Each time Byrne shouts, Cluxton pivots, faces the corresponding target, takes one step back and then executes his kick with a distinctive thump.

Different flights. Different trajectories. Some spin from left to right and land softly like a frisbee.

Others are driven high and long and sail into one of the bins with greater force and a deeper thud.

The drill goes on for about 45 minutes but there are no other players or coaches in the vicinity.

The previous day, Dublin beat Meath in the Leinster final (3-20 to 1-10).

A Dublin U16 development squad player looks on from afar with deep admiration. His name? Evan Comerford.

In 52 years, only six men have worn the Dublin goalkeeping jersey in a Championship match; Paddy Cullen, Mick Kennedy, John O'Leary, Davy Byrne, Stephen Cluxton and Bryan Murphy.

That statistic is all the more remarkable for the fact that Kennedy (two) and Murphy (one) played just three matches collectively, meaning the other four have almost a full 52 years of custodianship split between them.

They don't give it out freely. And the men in possession don't give it up easily.

In his colourful memoir, Dub Sub Confidential, John Leonard draws a flummoxed picture of himself as the Man Trying Desperately To Be King.

"When I was training I was trying to get any edge I could," wrote the St Sylvester's stopper.

"Initially, I tried to go in earlier than 'Clucko' but I couldn't.

"He was in at 5 o'clock at training two hours ahead of everyone else. You could never get there before him."

Leadership

Other men have come, had a go and left frustrated.

Shane Supple only ever played two League games, despite the fact that his goalkeeping abilities almost led to him winning an international football cap a couple of weeks ago and his leadership qualities were self-evident when he captained St Brigid's to their last Dublin SFC title in 2011.

Like Leonard, Cluxton viewed Supple as a competitor more so than a colleague.

And as the ultimate competitor himself, he was only going to deal with that threat one way.

Step forward Evan Comerford, The Man Who Might Be King For a Day.

"Simply because of his age, he was the perfect foil in that regard," says Paddy Carr, the man who gave Comerford his SFC club debut with Ballymun Kickhams last year.

"Who better to learn from than Stephen himself?"

Evan Comerford wasn't always a goalkeeper.

At least not a Gaelic football 'keeper, anyway.

As an underage footballer with St Peregrines, he was a forward of potential and after moving house and transferring to Ballymun Kickhams at 14 years-old, he expected to continue as such.

The story goes that one evening after training with the Ballymun U15s, an impromptu penalty shoot-out broke out as the players awaited their lifts home.

Comerford, not long with the club at that stage, declared that he would stand in goals.

As shot after shot was acrobatically repelled, one of the young 'Mun U15 players Tony McCaul - son of former Dublin senior footballer, Anto, who himself was in charge of that Ballymun U15 team - took note.

Comerford relayed that he had been a keeper with Bohemians at U12 and U13 level.

As it went, Anto McCaul had been chatting to a member of the Dublin development squad management at that age group about goalkeepers.

So McCaul sold the idea to Comerford on the basis that if he delivered 'between the sticks' for the club he could be asked out for the Dublin development squad.

Very soon Comerford was invited into the development squad system.

"People talk about the skills involved in goalkeeping," says Carr, "but it's like anything else. You get better the more you put into it. And Evan has put a huge amount into it."

What struck management of that development squad over the next few years was his Cluxton-esque commitment to self improvement.

Viable

If training started at seven o'clock, Comerford would enquire what time the earliest member of management would arrive and if the answer was 6.15, he'd be there at 6.10.

St Brigid's Chris Lynam was his initial Dublin goalkeeping coach while Comeford later worked with both Supple and Murphy over the following years and won an U21 All-Ireland in April of last year, after which the question of who might eventually succeed Stephen Cluxton seemed like it might finally have a viable answer.

"I've little doubt that Evan has the temperament for it," Carr stresses.

"Of all the positions in any field sport - but particularly Gaelic games - the goalkeeper has to have a pretty unique temperament. And he has that perfect attitude and temperament for what will be needed if he plays on Sunday."

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