Gaelic GamesAnalysis

Cluxton returns to his old stomping ground like he’s never been away

Now 41, it was a solid and mostly unremarkable second coming back at Croke Park for the greatest goalkeeper of all time

As the last strains of Amhrán na bhFiann faded away, Stephen Cluxton broke from the group and set out for Hill 16. As he went one way, the Dublin defenders set off in the opposite direction.

Quickly, Cluxton realised his error. He might have been on a different path to them for a couple of years, but these days they are all travelling the same road once more. Dublin would be kicking towards the Hill in the first half, so he turned and jogged to the Canal End. It was one of the few missteps Cluxton made on his return to intercounty football.

It is fair to label Cluxton’s comeback as a shock. The garlands were tossed at his feet a few years back, the tributes written, his place in history assured. He had been out of the game since December 2020 and during his time away Cluxton had, to borrow some phraseology from the Jim Gavin-era Dublin dressingroom, entered his fifth decade as a human.

After sitting on the bench for three games, the former Footballer of the Year started the recent Leinster SFC semi-final against Kildare.


But after 862 days away from intercounty football, what approach does one take? How does the greatest goalkeeper of all time handle his second debut? As only Cluxton can, as it turns out.

He had a 100 per cent retention rate from his kick-outs, 14 out of 14 restarts were collected by Dublin players. Though, admittedly, only one of those could be considered a contested kick-out, with the majority merely rolled out to unaccompanied defenders.

But his performance also included one point-blank save, dragging a 45 wide in the first half and calming dealing with seven Kildare efforts that dropped short in front of the Dublin goal.

There was no evidence Cluxton had added anything new to his game and, at this stage of his career, Dublin fans aren’t exactly expecting to see him sprint the length of the pitch to operate as an extra attacking option.

Cluxton fundamentally changed the way we view the role of a goalkeeper in Gaelic football. He inspired the next generation, but in turn the likes of Rory Beggan, Niall Morgan, Odhran Lynch and Ethan Rafferty have continued to push the boundaries and evolve the position further.

In the Leinster semi-final, Cluxton mostly kept it simple. He was once again a reassuring presence, emanating an air of control while still displaying a keenness to get rapid kick-outs away. It was a solid and mostly unremarkable second coming. For a man who had been away for so long, that in itself is pretty remarkable. It was a case of Stephen Cluxton just doing Stephen Cluxton things at Croke Park again.

He is expected to be named as the Dublin goalkeeper for Sunday’s Leinster final and retain the jersey ahead of David O’Hanlon for the rest of the summer.

Here, The Irish Times examines The Cluxton Comeback: Leinster SFC semi-final, Dublin v Kildare

2 mins: His first involvement is a very simple rolled kick-out to the unmarked Tom Lahiff on the edge of the D, following the opening score of the game by Kildare.

3 mins: The Dublin goalkeeper shows he hasn’t lost any of his reflexes by pulling off a good save from Jack Robinson. The Kildare forward races in from the Cusack Stand side but his effort is hit at a decent height for Cluxton to save, though the Dublin goalkeeper did narrow the angle well in advance of the shot.

5 mins: Ben McCormack drops a shot short and Cluxton comfortably collects possession.

9 mins: Just eight seconds after Paddy Woodgate converts a free, Cluxton successfully executes another short kick-out.

10 mins: A potentially dangerous situation arising from a dropping Eoin Doyle shot is punched clear by Cluxton, just as Aaron Masterson storms in to try get a touch on the ball.

17 mins: This is the only contested Dublin kick-out of the afternoon. James McCarthy takes a position out near the Hogan Stand sideline, between the 45-65 metre lines. Cluxton arrows a beautifully weighted kick-out right on top of the Dublin captain, who wins possession ahead of Paddy McDermott.

20 mins: Another quick kick-out, this time to Ciarán Kilkenny near the Cusack Stand sideline, just seven seconds after a Kildare wide.

21 mins: A sense of nostalgic giddiness springs up on Hill 16 as Cluxton makes his way up to take a 45 from the same general postcode of his iconic 2011 free. However, on this occasion the Dublin goalkeeper drags his shot left and wide.

23 mins: Safely gathers another Kildare shot that drops short. From then until half-time Cluxton gets away four further short kick-outs.

36 mins: Starts the second half in keeping with the first, taking a short kick-out, this time to the unmarked Paul Mannion.

51 mins: Collects a short effort by Ben McCormack and safely hand-passes away. Moments later, it is a case of rinse and repeat following another McCormack short.

68 mins: Cluxton has a couple of trickier dropping balls to contend with in the closing stages, but despite the best efforts of Eoin Doyle and Daniel Flynn, Dublin clear their lines.

72 mins: His last kick-out of the game is also one of his most effective. Just six seconds after Paul Cribbin kicks a wide, Cluxton has a short kick-out away to just outside the 20 metre line. Merely 15 seconds later, Lorcan O’Dell pops over the insurance score. Just 21 seconds have elapsed between the Kildare wide and Dublin’s 14th point.