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Stephen Cluxton toasts his 40th birthday today - he was truly one of a kind

It is a measure of the man and his unique contribution to Gaelic football that precisely a year after his last appearance for Dublin he is still talked about in near hushed tones.
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup

Sean McGoldrick

Stephen Cluxton is toasting his 40th birthday today.

It is a measure of the man and his unique contribution to Gaelic football that precisely a year after his last appearance for Dublin he is still talked about in near hushed tones.

Earlier this week he was back in the bosom of Dublin football when he attended Paddy Andrews’ wedding along with most of the Dublin squad who won eight All-Ireland titles in ten years.

He has never formally announced that he has quit the Dublin squad, but realistically the chances of him ever playing for Dublin again are remote.

He walked away without fanfare or fuss.

It might not have been the way he planned it, yet it was entirely in fitting with his character that it happened this way.

To the best of my knowledge, he only gave one interview in his career – he was promoting a summer school for goalkeepers.

I was present that evening in DCU but sadly I didn’t retain a recording of the chat we had.

I do recall one comment he made along the lines that his father, who was a noted junior soccer player, once told him not to pay too much attention to what was written in the newspapers.

It is improbable than he will ever pen an autobiography.

But arguably no player has left such an indelible mark on Gaelic football.

He became the first hurler or footballer to make 100 championship appearance and his final appearance in last December’s All-Ireland final against Mayo was his 111th.

He kept 64 clean sheets and was still creating records right to the end. In 2020 he completed a first-ever championship season without conceding a goal.

Stephen Cluxton celebrates with Brian Fenton

Stephen Cluxton celebrates with Brian Fenton

Dublin only conceded 64 championship goals when he was wearing the number one shirt. He won eight All-Ireland medals. He captained them to six wins on the spin - a record which will probably stand for ever.

According to author Gerry Callan, Cluxton – a science teacher in his alma mater St David’s in Artane – first wore the Dublin jersey when he was 17 years and 227 days old in the 1999 Leinster minor final replay against Wexford.

He was 19 years and 161 days old when he made his senior debut in a provincial quarter-final victory against Longford on May 27, 2001. Con O’Callaghan five years old at the time.

He was then understudy to Dublin’s first-choice keeper Davy Byrne. The latter returned after the Leinster semi-final – and was first choice for the remainder of the 2001 summer.

New Dublin boss Tommy Lyons then installed Cluxton as the team’s go-to keeper in 2002. In the next two decades he missed only a handful of championship games.

In 2004, he was serving a one-match ban, after being sent-off in the previous year’s All-Ireland round-three qualifier against Armagh, and missed Dublin’s defeat by Westmeath in the Leinster championship.

But he returned for the first-round qualifier against London and was ever-present for the next 14 years, until he was injured during the 2018 Leinster semi-final win over Longford.

Evan Comerford replaced him during the game – and also featured in the Leinster final against Laois, as well as last year’s Super 8 dead-rubber against Tyrone.

What’s often overlooked is that he plied his trade for a long, long time before he had any success.

He was in his sixth season with Dublin before he won his first Leinster medal. Also it was his 55th game - and a decade after he made his debut - that Dublin, courtesy of his legendary last-minute free, finally won the Sam Maguire Cup in 2011.

Another fascinating statistic about Cluxton’s incredible career is that only 10 of his 111 games for Dublin have been played outside Croke Park.

In October 2020, in the league fixture against Meath at Parnell Park, he became the Sky Blues’ longest-serving footballer, breaking the record set by the famous Johnny McDonnell, whose career as Dublin’s keeper spanned from mid-July 1919 to late May 1938.

It was appropriate that Cluxton would break that record a few weeks before the centenary anniversary of Bloody Sunday, as McDonnell was a central figure in the events on that November Sunday in 1920.

He participated in one of the assassinations which resulted in the deaths of 14 members of the British security forces, before making his way home and then on to Croke Park, where he played in goal for Dublin against Tipperary in the game which was attacked by the crown forces. It resulted in the death of 14 civilians.

But aside from the records, what set Cluxton apart was the way he changed the role of the goalkeeper. Due to his influence they’re no longer regarded as just shot stoppers.

Instead they also sweepers and through their kick-outs, the instigators of teams’ offensive play, but though many will imitate Cluxton few will match him.

He was truly one of a kind.

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