Allianz National Football League, Division Two: Dublin 0-16 Louth 1-6
“Any questions about the match, lads?” asked the Dubs’ press liaison man as we doggedly ignored the 70 minutes that had just played out in Croke Park. To which the only sane answer was, no, definitely not, not in a blue fit. Not when Stephen Cluxton is back in the mix.
Okay – if we must. Dublin were every bit as pedestrian here as they’ve been through the league, Louth were every bit as sticky. It was tight in the first half but the Dubs opened their shoulders after the break and it all washed out a seven-point win in the end for Dessie Farrell’s side. They go straight back up and will play Derry in the Division Two final next weekend.
But none of that was the news here. No, the news was down in the thicket of the Dublin warm-up before the game where, smuggled in without a whisper, the almost spectral figure of 41-year-old Cluxton was in his boots and shorts and gloves and taking a full part in proceedings. He hasn’t played for Dublin since the 2020 All-Ireland final, he hasn’t been mentioned since Farrell confirmed he’d stepped away during the 2021 campaign. Yet here he is, back for more, 22 years after making his senior debut.
“Stephen is training a couple of weeks now,” Farrell told us afterwards. “He’s fit and healthy and keen and eager. We’ve had a number of goalkeeping injury woes – you’ll all be fairly familiar with them. Evan [Comerford] hasn’t played any minutes this season yet and he’s working his way back, hopefully for some stage during the championship. Hugh O’Sullivan, our under-20 keeper, he’s been injured recently as well and is tied up with the 20s.
“So there was a vacancy there and Stephen has always said if he could ever help us out in any way, he’d be willing to do it. We’re delighted to have him in the mix. Knowing the individual, the competitive juice is always there. He’s always been Dublin through and through and when the time calls, he stepped forward and it’s great to have him.”
Cluxton didn’t see action on the pitch, where David O’Hanlon continued what has been a league campaign with a couple of smart saves. But as Farrell conceded afterwards, the 2019 Footballer of the Year isn’t coming back to sit on the bench. “I would have thought not, no. Knowing the man.”
Still, it maybe doesn’t say great things about the state of the Dublin squad that they’ve had to send up the bat signal three times now over the winter for players who haven’t played intercounty football in at least three years. Jack McCaffrey is working his way back from injury and Paul Mannion was a late addition to the substitutes here, coming off the bench to swing over a trademark point in the second half in his first game since December 2020. All three are generational players, clearly. But Dublin would surely like to not have to need them.
“Well the goalkeeping situation is a bit different,” Farrell said. “The individual concerned [Comerford] is obviously still very capable, he’s been one of the best in the business for a long period of time. But that’s always a concern in terms of generally for players and for Dublin – is the pipeline there? Is the strength in depth there in the squad that once was there?
“I think encouraging for us is that some of those players who came on today and some who started have done really, really well. There’s more in the mix there that are learning their trade. Maybe not just ready to go yet but the experience of the league and being around the group and being in the mix will serve them well into he future. They may not just be ready yet and of course that’s the challenge for us. Can we continue to be highly competitive while you’re getting players up to speed?”
They got plenty of competition here, in the first half at least. Mickey Harte said afterwards that Louth’s job was to stay in the game – and indeed up until half-time, they were fairly comfortable at that. Against a packed defence, Dublin’s shooting was all over the place and though Colm Basquel was lively, they only managed to carry a 0-5 to 0-4 lead into the break.
Louth paid for their lack of adventure as the game wore on though. Dublin came out and rattled the first five points after the break, with Brian Fenton and Sean Bugler notably finding their groove. Liam Jackson got in to stitch a goal for Louth and cut the gap to three with just over 20 minutes to go. But the Dublin subs all threw into the pot and Farrell’s side eased clear long before the end.
Dublin: David O’Hanlon; Daire Newcombe (0-1), David Byrne, Mick Fitzsimons; Eoin Murchan, John Small, Lee Gannon; Brian Fenton (0-1), James McCarthy; Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan (0-1), Seán Bugler (0-2); Cormac Costello (0-2, 0-1 free), Colm Basquel (0-3), Killian O’Gara (0-1). Subs: Paddy Small (0-1) for O’Gara, 25 mins; Tom Lahiff for Murchan, half-time; Paul Mannion (0-1) for Basquel, 53 mins; Lorcan O’Dell (0-1) for Costello (blood), 61 mins; Ross McGarry for Bugler, 66 mins; Dean Rock (0-1, 45) for O’Callaghan, 71 mins.
Louth: James Califf (0-1, free); Dan Corcoran, Peter Lynch, Donal McKenny; Leonard Grey, Ciaran Murphy, Conall McKeever; Tommy Durnin, Conor Early; Niall Sharkey, Liam Jackson (1-1), Conor Grimes; Daire McConnon (0-1), Ciaran Downey (0-3, 0-2 frees), Ryan Burns. Subs: Craig Keenan for McKenny, 46 mins; Tom Jackson for McKeever, 46 mins; Conall McCaul for Burns, 54 mins; Bevan Duffy for Sharkey, 57 mins; Jay Hughes for McConnon, 58 mins.
Referee: Paul Faloon (Down).