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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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‘Stephen’s a good, noble character. It’s no surprise that he’s still playing at this level at nearly 38’

All-Ireland winning goalkeeper in 2013 Shane Supple on working closely with Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton.

Cluxton poses for photos with Dublin supporters.
Cluxton poses for photos with Dublin supporters.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

AS SOMEONE WHO soldiered side-by-side with Stephen Cluxton throughout the victorious All-Ireland campaign of 2013, Shane Supple is in a unique position to decode the enigma of the Dublin captain.

Battling together and pushing one another on through training sessions and match-days en route to the Allianz National League, Leinster Championship and the Sam Maguire, Supple should be able to lift up the curtain on one of Irish sport’s most fascinating and elusive characters.

But, he says, Cluxton just doesn’t let his mask slip. With a relentless, quiet, steely determination to be the best and maintain those high standards which yield trophies season after season, Cluxton’s secrets to success are as close-guarded to team-mates as they are to the public who watch on in amazement at the 37-year-old’s performances.

“Maybe it was the fact he didn’t talk to people,” Supple grins trying to put into words what made the Dublin captain so special during the All-Ireland winning campaign they spent together as team-mates six years ago.

The former shot-stopper, having spent seven years on the books at Ipswich Town, returned home to Ireland at the age of 22 after becoming completely disillusioned with the thankless, selfish nature of football in the UK — a toxic environment he saw as the antithesis of a GAA dressing room.

shane-supple Supple won an All-Ireland football championship with Dublin back in 2013. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He picked back up gaelic with Blanchardstown side St Brigid’s after leaving Roy Keane’s Ipswich side a decade ago, and went on to captain his local club all the way to the Dublin Senior Football Championship in 2011. His fine form led to a call-up by Jim Gavin the following season as the manager prepared for his first year in charge taking over from Pat Gilroy.

Supple says he knew the chance of getting minutes ahead of Cluxton were unlikely, but still relished the opportunity to work alongside the Dublin captain as understudy, fully aware of the importance which goalkeepers have helping to drive one another on, even if one player isn’t getting in the starting XV.

Retiring last year after two-and-a-half seasons with Bohemians, where he earned a senior Ireland call-up under Martin O’Neill and was named SWAI Goalkeeper of the Year, Supple looks back fondly on his time spent in the bubble of the Dublin machine.

“Some of the lads I was with are still playing and are going for the five in a row,” he says of this evening’s All-Ireland final replay against Kerry. “Paddy Andrews is a club-mate of mine at St Brigid’s and all the lads I played against at club level are still involved, so it’s great to see that they’re on the cusp of this achievement.

“It’s something that’s never been done before and I hope they get over the line. They’re all great, humble lads, there’s no airs or graces about them. It’s nice when you get that kind of package altogether.”

stephen-cluxton The Parnells clubman has revolutionised the goalkeeping position. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Supple won’t actually get the chance to be in attendance at, or even see, today’s All-Ireland final replay. With an EA Sports Cup final 233km up the M1 Motorway between Derry City and Dundalk scheduled, he will be on punditry duty for Eir Sport instead.

That clash of sporting events, a League of Ireland cup final and an All-Ireland decider on the same day, is a fitting reminder of Supple’s unique career balancing GAA and football. In fact, one of the key reasons he decided to return to club football with Bohemians is because they would accommodate him still playing with St Brigid’s at the same time.

There was a massive difference between my time with Dublin and Ipswich,” he told The42 in 2016. “With Dublin, the lads took complete responsibility. It was their team. They owned it and Jim Gavin allowed them to do that. There would be no messing. Every training session everyone would be on it.

“It’s obviously difficult to get into the Dublin starting line-up, everybody wants to be there. The A v B teams were absolutely savage. They were better than any Leinster Championship match we got that year. I’m not saying the management had an easy job, but it was player-driven, definitely.

“But there is no doubt about it, the demands are getting too much. I never trained as hard in my life as a professional in England as I did with Dublin that year. What was expected of us was unbelievable. Having said that, I did enjoy it. I would have enjoyed it even more if I was playing.

shane-supple-lifts-the-trophy Supple left Ipswich at the age of 22 in 2009 and captained St Brigid's to the Dublin Senior Football Championship two years later. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“To ask players to do that year after year after year, it’s no surprise to see players retiring at 28 or 29 at that level of inter-county football. I think the training was a bit much but everybody seems to be doing it. Players need to keep up, teams need to keep up.”

Supple left the Dublin panel after that treble-winning campaign of 2013. Still lining out for St Brigid’s, he helped out his local Leinster Senior League club Crumlin United when they were short of a goalkeeper, and won the FAI Intermediate Cup — this short spell with Crumlin helping to fuel the fire for his return with Bohemians.

The 32-year-old called it a day and hung up his gloves at the end of last year, admitting that he ‘had to listen to his body’. Having moved to England in order to join Ipswich at 15-years-old, he said that his career had taken a toll and he was content to call it quits.

Thinking back to his days with Dublin and looking forward to today’s All-Ireland replay against Kerry, Supple speaks highly of Cluxton and all that the Parnells goalkeeper has achieved during his 18-year career with the Boys in Blue.

“I got on very well with Stephen,” Supple says. “He’s a good, noble character. He enjoys a joke and a laugh even though he doesn’t talk too much to the media. He’s a great fellah, a really good guy and when he does pack it in eventually, he’ll have left an incredible legacy behind him.

stephen-cluxton Cluxton will hope to secure his seventh All-Ireland title against Kerry this evening. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Listen, he’s just such a driven guy. There’s lots of people that have that drive in sport and they go about their profession a certain way, and Stephen is the same. I always found him brilliant to work with on a daily basis. In training he always wants to learn and be the best that he can be.

He is always driving on further, despite all that he has achieved already, or what age he is. It’s no surprise that he is still playing at this level at the age of nearly 38. He looks after himself and as everyone knows, he’s completely changed the game.

“I’ve no idea if he’ll pack it in after this year, but it’s a big legacy to leave behind and someone will need to step up and take on that mantle now going forward.”

Supple has witnessed the transformation of the goalkeeping position over recent years and admires the ways in which his former team-mate has excelled not just in terms of shot-stopping, catching and point-kicking from dead-ball situations, but also his legendary vision and distribution.

stephen-cluxton-celebrates The 37-year-old will once again captain Dublin as they take on Kerry in this evening's All-Ireland replay. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s hard to articulate it. It’s not just one aspect of his game that you can point to, it’s all the work that he puts in and the team that works around him too. You could be the best kicker in the world, but if you don’t have the players out there working hard and creating the space, it’s not going to be successful.

He works hard on his game, he practices constantly and always puts a huge amount of effort into everything he does year after year, so it’s no surprise how good his kick-outs are. But it is a two-way streak, too, in terms of the coaching staff that work with the panel. It’s how the game has gone now — it’s all about possession and retaining the ball from kick-outs.”

Working week-in, week-out with Cluxton for a year en route to an All-Ireland, Supple says that quiet, steely determination is the key to the Coolock man’s success. Whether or not this will be the Dublin captain’s final campaign is unknown, and while we all struggle to decode the enigma of what makes Stephen Cluxton such a successful goalkeeper and leader, his legacy is there for all to see and admire from a distance.

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Aaron Gallagher

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