Friday 19 January 2018

Why Stephen Cluxton is still king of the keepers

Tyrone stopper Morgan still best of the chasing bunch behind Dublin's Number 1

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton

BEFORE Dublin and Tyrone met in the 2013 League final, Niall Morgan - then a goalkeeping novice with a pretty varied set of skills and discernible on-field brashness - called Stephen Cluxton "the King of the 'Keepers".

"I would say that if Stephen hadn't been hitting frees for Dublin, I don't think I would be playing Gaelic football at county level," he went on to clarify.

Morgan has been through a cruciate operation and much more recently, the near ignominy of being lobbed from 45 metres in Castlebar in the meantime, yet his ascension to Cluxton's throne hasn't lagged any.

"They're certainly very, very similar," says Pascal McConnell, whose career as Tyrone 'keeper spanned that of Cluxton's until giving way to the inevitability of Morgan's rise after that 2013 season.

"Stephen has done it at the top level and been around the blocks and has amassed huge experience.

"Niall came along and set the game alight and has really caught the imagination with his performances.

"The two of them have very similar attributes. Their shot-stopping attributes are unquestionable.

"Their place-ball kicking from the restart or the frees …their records speak for themselves.

"He's probably just a younger version of Stephen Cluxton."

Towards the end of his own career, McConnell and John Devine were inseparable as custodian and replacement in Mickey Harte's thinking but Morgan, an outfielder with Edendork but a goalie with Dungannon Swifts, changed that. McConnell and Devine weren't just similar in ability, they were stylistically and physically alike.

Morgan was all vim and brio in possession, long and inventive with kickouts and both skilful and willing to kick frees and '45s'.

This, just a year or so after Cluxton had won the All-Ireland final for Dublin and so naturally, people presumed Harte had gone looking for a Cluxton clone.

McConnell isn't so sure.

"From the management point of view, there is always that need to move with the game, to adapt with the times," he says.

"This young lad had come along and brought that new dimension, particularly the free-taking.

And it has helped Tyrone. Look at his record from frees, it has been phenomenal. Myself and my team were coming to the end of our run and maybe it was just looking at the long-term option."

Nor is McConnell as taken with the revolution of goalkeeping theory.

"The goalkeeping role, people look at it being very complex," he outlines.


"But it can be a very simple position. You deal with things simply and effectively. It can be very second nature.

"The top class forwards are constantly changing their game, so you need to adapt too.

"When the Kerry boys put Kieran Donaghy at full-forward, that made it a much different game for every goalkeeper who played against them."

Chances are, the two may meet tomorrow night in Croke Park, with Cluxton's value to the Dublin team highlighted by Seán Currie's kick-out malfunctions in Killarney last week.

"We had the same situation with Michael O'Neill with Tyrone last year when he stepped into the Championship against Down (after Morgan's cruciate injury)," McConnell points out.

"He probably fell victim to the manager's policy of 'I have my number one goalkeeper, I'm going to stick with him'.

"Injuries can happen. I think Seán Currie probably learned more from that game last week than he has from the entire rest of his game time with Dublin. Nothing beats game time.

"The only way to build confidence is to play in those games," he insists.

"I think it's only fair that Seán (Currie) gets a chance in those games because Stephen will not be around forever.

"That's the reality of the thing. Someone is going to have to step up there.

"And it's going to be tough for whoever comes in long-term because of the level that he played at and the way that he played it," concludes McConnell.

"They're going to be big, big shoes to fill."

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