Cluxton uncertainty a strange situation for Dublin, yet low-key exit may be natural step

If the end is in sight, one of the game’s greats is moving on from the Dublin ranks.

Dublin's Stephen Cluxton.
Dublin's Stephen Cluxton.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

AFTER HIS DUBLIN team had got themselves up and running for championship 2021 yesterday, Dessie Farrell headed over to a spot by the sideline in Wexford Park to face the questions from the waiting media.

There were salient issues to discuss like the laboured nature of the display the champions put in against an aggressive Wexford team, who belied their lowly Division 4 status, and that suspension Farrell was slapped with for the spring training session that breached Covid-19 guidelines.

Yet that was overshadowed by the story of one Dublin player, not a member of the 20 that saw gametime yesterday, but instead a marked absentee.

Where was Stephen Cluxton and what does his football future hold?

After a few answers about the game that unfolded, Farrell was invited to address the big issue. He confirmed Cluxton was a Parnells footballer at present, having stepped away from the Dublin squad. Retired was not an accurate description for the goalkeeping king but simultaneously Farrell could not guarantee that a 2021 return was imminent for their captain.

It didn’t provide much clarity on the matter. What did this pause mean for his Dublin career? Is he finished for good at inter-county level? Can we expect a dramatic mid-summer comeback? Have more firmer conversations taken place surrounding his future plans? Are the Dublin camp really in the dark as much as they portray?

dessie-farrell-before-the-game Dessie Farrell. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

If he is bowing out, Cluxton is under no obligation to do a round of media interviews where he recalls each chapter of his career or post a revealing statement on Twitter to thank the stakeholders that have made his Dublin career possible. It seems implausible anyway to imagine him retiring in those circumstances 

The uncertainty is unlikely to interfere greatly with the Dublin squad’s preparations. A squad, as successful as they have been, are well-versed in blocking out external noise. They coped with the Diarmuid Connolly saga in the summer of 2019 to march on to lift Sam Maguire.

Privately it seems likely they have accepted his absence and retained an absolute focus on the championship challenges ahead. It’s not like they are short an able replacement. Evan Comerford won an All-Ireland U21 with Dublin in 2017, a senior title with his club Ballymun Kickhams last year and has deputised capably whenever called on in the senior setup over the past few seasons. Plus working in close quarters with the greatest goalkeeper of all time is quite a football education to receive.

But the lack of concrete information and a definitive decision makes for a strange situation. If a decision has been taken, it seems unneccessary to let that topic hang over the camp. 

In the void of uncertainty, speculation will swirl around. Given Dublin’s relentless march through Leinster, even if yesterday’s display was a few notches off their usual high levels, the Cluxton situation will remain a plotline of interest. Why not draw a line under it and move forward?

The lack of a proper announcement, if this is the end game for Cluxton’s Dublin career, cannot diminish the scale of his achievements. Crunch the numbers and his seismic influence in shaping the fortunes of his county, and the sport, become apparent. 20 seasons playing senior championship football, a starting point agianst Longford in May 2001 and a potential final date with Mayo last December.

A barren decade as part of a collective in a national sense before the first of eight All-Ireland medals was achieved in 2011, delivered by the swing of his left boot for a truly iconic winning point. Factor 16 Leinster senior wins and five National League triumphs into the equation.

The Footballer of the Year award in 2019 and six All-Stars were proof of his individual brilliance. No other current footballer is comparable in terms of All-Stars, only Tipperary’s Padraic Maher matches up across both codes in the present inter-county ranks. His revolutionary approach to kickouts had a transformative impact on the way the game is played and worked the minds of opponents intensely as they attempted to plot a way to stop him.

And in the basic fundamental of shot-stopping, his appetite for graft showed no signs of abating, as evidenced by a story Jim Gavin told after the 2019 All-Ireland final replay.

“I saw it the day after the (drawn game), him spending two hours on the pitch with Evan Comerford and Michael Shiels from Sylvester’s, the goalkeeping coach.

“The three of them working on trying to rectify his positioning for Killian Spillane’s goal in the first game. He had a bloody laptop, trying to replay in slow motion what way his feet and positioning were.

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“So that’s someone who’s dedicated to their craft, and the result of that is what you see in those clutch moments, to have that composure to make himself big and strong and just do his job. That’s what Stephen does – he does his job.”

It is a job Dublin have not had to be concerned about for some time, the bedrock of their dominance over the past decade. The potential departure is another example of the overhaul in the squad. Since the 2019 All-Ireland win, the retirement list reads Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara, Darren Daly, Diarmuid Connolly, Michael Dara MacAuley, Paddy Andrews and Cian O’Sullivan, while Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Rory O’Carroll have exited.

It shreds the notion of a golden generation powering Dublin as they have withstood those personnel losses to remain dominant and victorious.

james-mccarthy-with-a-young-fan-after-the-game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

But Cluxton is a totemic figure to lose, leaving James McCarthy and Michael Fitzsimons as the only two first-team regulars still soldiering on from the 2011 breakthrough, while Philly McMahon and Kevin McManamon remain on the panel.

And maybe it’s fitting for Cluxton to make a low-key departure, in keeping with his character. His total concentration was always on the events unfolding on the pitch.

If he cannot influence them directly any longer, slipping away quietly may just be what he sees as the natural thing to do.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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