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'He would have been bursting with delight over it, but his persona is that of a serious guy'

John Leonard, author of Dub Sub Confidential, talks Stephen Cluxton and lots more on this week’s edition of Behind the Lines.

Cluxton heads back to his goal having kicked the winning score in the 2011 All-Ireland final.
Cluxton heads back to his goal having kicked the winning score in the 2011 All-Ireland final.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Updated Feb 16th 2021, 12:00 PM

WITH DUBLIN, WE still know more about the understudy than the star. 

John Leonard – back-up goalkeeper to Stephen Cluxton on the Dublin panel from 2006 to 2008 –  laid his remarkable life bare in his award-winning 2015 book Dub Sub Confidential, revealing the abuse he suffered as a child and the years of booze-and-drug-fuelled hedonism it fuelled later in his life. 

It won was the Irish Sports Book of the Year award, was further acclaimed and cast as a GAA counterpart to Eamon Dunphy’s famous Only A Game?.

John is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines, speaking from his new home in Auckland, where he and wife Serena run a web design business. He is writing too, and is working on a collection of short stories in the gaps around work and fatherhood. 

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While his book told his story, it did grant some insight into Cluxton, who has managed to spend the last decade as arguably the most influential figure in Gaelic football while largely remaining a mystery. 

We do, very occasionally, catch fleeting glimpses of insight into the man. After last year’s All-Ireland final win, Cluxton explained to RTE why he prefers to celebrate these victories in the privacy of the dressing room, as he doesn’t want to be perceived as gloating or revelling in an opponent’s dismay. 

Overall, however, the best insight we have to Cluxton remains the account crafted by Leonard.

inpho_01000578 John Leonard, pictured winning the Irish Sports Book of the Year in 2015. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Leonard initially didn’t want Cluxton on the front cover of his book, and doesn’t know whether he ever read it. That said, he doesn’t imagine Cluxton would have many issues with it, which reveals  Cluxton’s genius to be rooted in dreary repetition. 

“His pre-warm-up consisted of hitting twenty balls over from the 14-yard line”, writes Leonard in his book. “He then moved out ten yards and repeated the process from the left and the right. Then he moved out to the 45. There was no hidden secret, no enigma. He simply practised excellent technique over and over and over.” 

And he practised it more assiduously than anybody else. When Leonard first joined the panel, he decided to turn up at training early to try and get an edge. When he first arrived half an hour early, Cluxton was already out on the pitch. 

Then he arrived an hour before training…and Cluxton was on the pitch. 

Then he arrived 90 minutes before training…and Cluxton was on the pitch. 

He eventually had to arrive two hours early just to get out at the same time as him. 

“He was just extremely dedicated”, says Leonard on Behind the Lines. 

“He came from a soccer background, he was a left winger so he had a good left foot on him. He was just extremely serious about it. He is a serious man who wanted to be a success and wanted the Dubs to be a success. 

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“He was playing a game he loved for the team he loved. His dedication is unparalleled. 

“With the change in GAA at the time, we got kicking tees and teams started to drop off and play a little more tactically, he started to mix up his kick-outs. It all became this perfect storm for him, which culminated in him kicking the ball over in 2011 to win the All-Ireland. 

“I could never have been happier for somebody. I daydreamed about that scenario. Kicking into the Hill, as a goalkeeper, Dublin against Kerry, to lift a first All-Ireland in however many years. I am amazed at how well he was able to kick that. I know him, and he would have been bursting with delight over it. But his persona is that of a serious guy. Even in training, you could have a laugh with him at certain points, but he was just serious.  

“He always wanted to win, he hated losing; he hated not being serious, he hated if a training session wasn’t at the level he thought it should be. As goalkeepers, we train so hard. We put so much effort in, and if he felt it was not being replicated elsewhere at training, he would be upset about it.”

There’s another yarn in the book, as the Dubs forwards under Paul Caffrey ran through a shooting drill, in which they sprinted one-on-one from the 14-yard line, unchallenged, and tried to score a goal past Leonard. 

Cluxton looked on, swearing furiously under his breath.

“That fucking shite you were just doing”, came Cluxton’s explanation. “You think Colm Cooper is down in Kerry doing fucking drills like that? You think he is running in to the 14-yard line and burying a ball past a keeper with no one trying to stop him?’

“We bust our bollix over here, the defenders burst their arses over there and then the forwards prick around doing shite like that? It’s no wonder we don’t fucking win anything. I’m fucking sick of it. How the fuck are we meant to progress with that kind of shite?’” 

Leonard can see Cluxton’s personality all over the present, all-conquering Dublin team. 

“The last 10 years have been incredible for him and the team, and I think his personality has been imprinted on them. They are extremely serious and meticulous, and it all comes from him. They don’t relent, and he never relented. 

“Without him, it might not have fused as it has.” 

Listen to the full interview with John by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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