As both the captain and talisman of Dublin football, Stephen Cluxton has been acknowledged by many as the best goalkeeper of the modern game.
His efficiency in kick outs, precision in free taking and steely demeanour have all been central to Dublin lifting Sam Maguire three times in the last five years.
However, given the animated reaction caused by two critical errors from the 34-year-old, which almost led to his side exiting this year’s All Ireland in their semi-final clash against Kerry, the presence of Dublin’s shot stopper is now been cited – by some – as the side’s weakness rather than a strength.
What a difference 70 minutes of football makes.
Because of this, some have suggested that one possible path to victory for Mayo, as Connacht underdogs, may lie in provoking Cluxton to result in him either losing his focus or being sent off.
There’s certainly merit in the theory that Parnells’ man has a short fuse that can be set off; Dublin fans have put their hands in their heads on many occasions at the sight of their usually reliable leader being involved in a moment of madness and seeing red.
It’s not outside the realms of possibility that a well-placed insult at the goalkeeper or a melee within his small square could lead to Dublin being left with 14-men and up against the ropes for most of the match, though it’d be incredibly naïve for any Mayo supporter to expect that Cluxton can be wound up so easily.
Almost every time the Dubliner has stepped onto the field in Croke Park, he has been nothing but methodical and clinical in both his command in front of the posts and his kick outs, leading to his moniker of being Dublin’s quarterback. Two blunders against the Kingdom shouldn’t be enough to expect anything but an assured performance on the 18th of September.
Darts supremo Phil Taylor has missed plenty of double 20s in his career, Tiger Woods wasn’t immune from hitting the odd double bogey and even Muhammad Ali had five losses on his professional record.
It may be ludicrous to compare an amateur goalkeeper from north Dublin to some of the greatest sportsmen of all time but the point is still valid; the best in their field are not immune from mistakes. The best in their field simply make the least amount of these same errors.
Even considering his well-documented tendency to lose his temper at times, these incidents are few and far between. Simply put, it’d be foolish for any fan, Dublin or Mayo, to consider him as a liability.
Not dissimilar to his team-mate Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin’s opposition would be better equipped focusing on how to diminish Cluxton’s strength and disrupt his game rather than attempting to send him on an early walk back to the dressing rooms.
Cluxton and the Dublin full back line thrive on a contest where they are given the game to send long, uncontested balls towards the middle of the park and where the opponent’s forwards send in one-dimensional balls that are easy to predict and plan for.
Mayo’s forwards had patchy success during the pair’s most recent semi-final encounter in penetrating the Dublin defence, but one of the key failures in their replay defeat was their over-reliance on aimless high balls towards Aidan O’Shea. this approach allowed the Dublin defence to easily double mark one of Mayo’s own talisman and take him completely out of the game.
There is no questioning the quality of Dublin’s defence, but both Mayo last year and Kerry last Sunday showed that there are holes to be exploited. The Yew County men will definitely look at the way the Kingdom were able to push up during Cluxton’s kick outs as a way of neutralising the Dubs’ dominance in the middle of the park.
What happened in the lead up to Kerry’s first goal was, without a doubt, thanks to a comical error from the Dublin goalkeeper, but it was facilitated by Kerry preventing short kick outs and crowding Dublin’s half of the pitch to limit Cluxton’s options.
It is essential that Mayo do the same in order to pull off an upset in this year’s final, especially given the manner in which Brian Fenton and Michael Darragh McCauley can outrun the middle of the pitch if the right balls are coming out of their own half.
A second way of challenging both Cluxton and the Dubs is to apply pressure in the form of goal threats.
As seen against Kerry and many times beforehand, while Dublin may not possess as much of a goal threat as some fans may prefer, the quality of shooting their six forwards possess means it is incredibly difficult for any team to match them point for point.
All of which means that goals will be crucial to Mayo’s chances of success. Cluxton’s shot stopping is definitely amongst the best in his field. It is one of the less talked about aspects of his game though and could be perceived as one of his weaker points.
That’s not to say he is particularly weak when it comes to saving goal chances but the reality is that any keeper in the country, put under enough pressure, will eventually let one or two in.
Assuming Dublin are likely to outmatch their opponents by at least a couple of points, it is imperative that Mayo use the strength they have in their full-forward line.
Dublin’s full back line is made up of three superbly talented footballers but they have also shown a deficiency in man-marking top-class forwards.
On a day where the overall defensive performance from Dublin (minus goalkeeping blunders) was mostly positive, Paul Geaney was constantly allowed to pick up ball around the 21-metre line and put scores on the board for Kerry before being substituted to the surprise of many.
Cillian O’Connor is unquestionably one of the best corner forwards in the country today and Aidan O’Shea is more than capable of putting ball between the posts provided Mayo play to his strengths.
Mayo have the individual talents in their line-up to ask questions of Cluxton and his defenders, but the final outcome very much depends on how they are able to control the middle of park and how effectively they are able to supplement the talent in their forward line.
On paper, it’s definitely a game that will see Mayo’s back firmly against the wall but there are weaknesses they too can exploit. It’s up to the men from the West to exploit the right ones, and not to invest their All-Ireland prospects on the performance or temperament of one goalkeeper.
Daniel O’Connor, Pundit Arena