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Saturday 7 December 2019

Last three standing

Influence of Dublin's holy trinity can't be overstated in decade of dominance

Dublin's Cian O'Sullivan. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Cian O'Sullivan. Photo: Sportsfile

It was in April of last year at a promotional appearance in Croke Park that James McCarthy was asked if he could name the three players who had started every All-Ireland final Dublin had played in this decade.

"Yeah?" he replied, eyebrow raised.

"Who are they? Cluxton anyway?" he asked, genuinely curious, puzzled even, before the triumvirate of Stephen Cluxton, Cian O'Sullivan and McCarthy himself was revealed.

"Not bad company," he smiled. "I'll take that."

But McCarthy still wasn't convinced.

"Are there only three? Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly, no? Bernard?"

Nope, nope and nope again.

The answer was still Cluxton, O'Sullivan and McCarthy.

And five months later, they preserved their perfect starting record in Dublin's All-Ireland finals since 2011 when they were part of Gavin's first 15 against Tyrone on September 2.

Sunday will be Dublin's eighth final this decade.

If there is a chance O'Sullivan might lose that distinction (he hasn't started any of the last three of Dublin's matches) it's at least a minor miracle that he has made it this far in his career with an unblemished final starting record.

Last year O'Sullivan admitted his ever-presence "probably is something to be proud of, all right, having picked up my fair share of injuries."

Which was an understatement on two counts.

Blessed with rare natural pace but plagued by hair-trigger hamstrings, O'Sullivan has slogged harder than anyone to play such an influential part in Dublin's decade.

His troubles started young.

In 2011, he was taken out of action by Pat Gilroy for four months to work solely on his problem hamstrings.

Wearing number 17, he made his comeback in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone as a corner-back.

Intuitive

On a night when Dublin's brilliant one-touch football and Diarmuid Connolly's breakout performance lingered, O'Sullivan infused his team and their support with energy early on when he came from behind Mark Donnelly to win three balls out in front and accelerate forward.

In 2015, having won All-Irelands at corner-back (2011) and midfield ('13), O'Sullivan was reinvented as a holding centre-back, a role that suited both his speed and intuitive reading of the game.

Then he suffered a grade 2 tear in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay with Mayo, just two weeks shy of the final against Kerry.

"I lived and breathed rehab for two weeks, cryotherapy, did everything that was suggested to me, I tried it," he explained later, having started and lasted 60 minutes.

"Anything from that to diet to rehab techniques."

Last year, something similar.

O'Sullivan was substituted after just 27 minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway.

It was testament to his importance to this Dublin team that Gavin started him in that now customary role in the final, where again he succumbed to his affliction before half-time.

"It's the same thing that's been lingering around," he explained earlier this year, newly-married and sporting a Tom Selleck-style moustache.

"So there's no magical cure, it's just my biological make-up."

These long years have been physically tough on McCarthy also.

Year on year, he has developed into arguably Dublin's most influential outfield player, something that didn't seem likely on the afternoon in Killarney when he made his debut.

Given his lineage, it is perhaps inevitable that games against Kerry have been some of the formative moments of McCarthy's inter-county career.

In 2010, when Dublin recorded their first win on Kerry soil since 1982, he made his debut, grappling with Paul Galvin - not a noted early-league performer.

McCarthy conceded four points and struggled with the compact physicality and innate cunning of the then reigning Footballer of the Year.

Three years later, he marked Galvin in what would be the Kerryman's final inter-county game before his first retirement.

They rutted like stags at the handshake but by the end, the balance had shifted. Galvin was gone.

Only this year in the League game in Tralee, McCarthy scored two points, ran midfield for a patch and finished up at full-back.

Like O'Sullivan, he was born with natural athleticism.

To the extent that Niall Moyna, under whom McCarty played for DCU, said three years ago: "I would have absolutely no doubt in my mind stating that if James McCarthy had been an athlete and run the 800 metres, he would have a talent very close to what Mark English (European Youth Olympic gold medallist) currently has."

"If he trained and had the right coaching, I would be certain he could run 1:45 for the 800 metres."

For context, the Irish record is 1:44.82, set by David Matthews in 1974.

Yet for all the influence wielded by McCarthy and O'Sullivan this decade, there hasn't been a more significant figure for Dublin football than Stephen Cluxton since Kevin Heffernan.

You could, given the rapid evolution of Gaelic football during Cluxton's career and his part in it, construct a sturdy argument for him being the most influential footballer in the history of his sport.

This week, Barry Cahill speculated that like Jim Gavin, Cluxton might see Sunday as a natural moment to end a career that has spanned 19 seasons.

Cahill was only giving a speculative answer to a speculative question but he didn't say anything that hasn't been routinely discussed all year in the GAA clubhouses and hostelries of the capital.

"Stephen is playing at such a level now," says Mossy Quinn. "This is arguably one of the best years he has had.

"There is nothing to make you think, looking at him on the pitch, that he is creaking a bit here."

Barring something cataclysmic on Sunday, Cluxton will win his sixth All Star, six years and several dubious calls after his fifth.

If Dublin are victorious, he will win a seventh All-Ireland, Cluxton's sixth as captain in what will be his 112th Championship appearance.

They are the statistics, the numbers and records that will eventually embellish Cluxton's legacy.

In truth, and to an even greater extent than McCarthy and O'Sullivan, Cluxton's influence is immeasurable.

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