At the end of Dessie Farrell’s press conference after the win over Louth on Sunday, we threw him one last softball on Stephen Cluxton.
It was as much to keep him in the room as anything – it’s rare that there’s an actual story to talk about at a Dublin league game, never mind a Division Two Dublin league game. Dubs beat Louth is Dog Bites Man. Stephen Cluxton returns to the Dublin fold is Man Bites Dog – And You Won’t Believe How It Tasted!
So we asked Dessie what did he think Cluxton would bring to the group, away from the nominal brass tacks of filling in while they were down a few bodies in the goalkeeping ranks.
“Obviously his leadership,” Farrell said. “His experience – he’s a real standard-bearer as well.”
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He’s cranky too?
“Yeah, well I’ll let you tell him that.”
From everything we know about Cluxton over his (now) 22-year Dublin career, that crankiness may well be the most important aspect of his return.
That Dublin have been on the drift for the past few seasons is inarguable. That they nonetheless haven’t been very far away is also clear for everyone to see.
With no standout team in the championship, all it will take is a run of games where they cut out the sloppiness and they will surely be bang there when it comes down to the last four.
The trite way to think about it is as follows. If everyone is fit and healthy and they make it that far, Dublin will be back in an All-Ireland semi-final with last year’s team plus Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan.
The only player they’ve lost in the meantime is Jonny Cooper. They lost that semi-final by one point, Seán O’Shea’s free from the ends of the earth. So it makes complete sense, on the face of it, that between the four of them they ought to be able to bring a point or two of improvement and at least make a final.
But if you’ve watched a lot of Dublin’s games over the past couple of seasons, you’ll know that the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of star power.
Jim Gavin’s Dublin teams weren’t built on star power, particularly towards the end. Over time, the teams of Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly gradually gave way to the teams of Dean Rock and Niall Scully. High-class, ruthlessly accurate footballers but nobody’s idea of superstars.
And it worked. It brought them to a place no other intercounty GAA team had ever gone before. Five All-Irelands in a row, a sixth tacked on in Farrell’s first year.
They became a powerhouse of competence, cool heads, meticulous decision-making. One that did the basics to the very highest standards to which the basics could be done. That thought with absolute clarity in game situations and managed the deathless closing minutes of tight games so much better than everybody else.
Players come and go and some of the all-time Dubs have gone in the past four seasons. But the thing that has been most noticeably absent from Dublin in recent years is that intolerance for the sloppy, dumb stuff that was always the preserve of other teams. The kind of carry-on that sets Cluxton’s teeth on edge.
It’s been there, even in this league campaign.
Spending a spring in Division Two doesn’t come with a stigma attached – most of the big counties do their penance there every once in a while. But part of the deal is that you spend the campaign reminding everyone of why you don’t belong there. You dish out a few punishment beatings and you get your forwards to groove in their finishing in advance of championship.
Whatever Dublin’s campaign was, it wasn’t that. They finished second, behind Derry. They only had one double-digit win, against Meath. They scored just five goals in seven games – only nine teams in the country had a worse goalscoring record. Six of those were either relegated or finished second-bottom of Division Four. The Dubs did, essentially, the bare minimum needed to advance.
The most glaring example of the drop in baseline standards came at the end of the Derry game. Ciarán Kilkenny has been far and away the best Dublin player of the Farrell era and was the only Dublin All-Star in the 2021 and 2022 teams.
But with the game on the line in Celtic Park, he chose the easy handpassed point despite Cormac Costello being available for a certain goal inside. Dublin paid for it in the end, with Brendan Rogers sallying forward to kick the winner soon after.
Funny enough, the one problem Dublin haven’t had in the league is between the posts. David O’Hanlon has done a fine job there in Evan Comerford’s absence, pulling off some high-class saves when needed and generally keeping Dublin moving with his kick-out game. So even with Comerford’s injury, it’s not as if Dublin have a glaring need in the goalkeeping department.
That’s why Cluxton’s return feels like it’s addressing a different problem.
“The shark in the tank,” is how one former player described Cluxton in an Irish Times a profile a few years ago. “Players, coaches, everyone in the group is kept on their toes by him.”
Now that he’s back, everyone outside the group has to sit up and take notice too.