‘He doesn’t talk, he acts it. He does come to training two hours before it starts’

FORMER DUBLIN MANAGER Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey told a story recently that summed up Stephen Cluxton’s mentality. 

The Dublin netminder is chasing his seventh All-Ireland medal this weekend, and sixth as captain, but back in 2002 he was one of the greenhorns on the panel.

On this particular afternoon, Dublin were due to take on Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final during Cluxton’s debut campaign as the number one.

They were without manager Tommy Lyons, who was laid up in hospital with gallstones, and in his absence selector Caffrey took the bainisteoir bib. After arriving at the team’s designated meet-up spot in Parnell Park, he was met by Cluxton who had “a big long face on him.”

“Everything okay?” Caffrey enquired.

“No, it’s all your fault,” Cluxton replied. “The lads’ heads aren’t right. Tommy’s not around and it’s going to be shite today.’”

Even as a 20-year-old, the Parnells man had no issue in speaking up when he felt things were not right. Acc0rding to Caffrey he was “a serious guy, didn’t say a lot and was a little bit narky.”

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Cluxton during the 2002 campaign.

Source: INPHO

Dublin coach Declan Darcy smiles when that story is recounted to him. He’s worked with Cluxton and this group since Jim Gavin took over in 2013.

“I don’t know if you’ve put yourself in a dressing room and stared at these lads and seen Stephen Cluxton looking up at you,” Darcy says. 

“Any sense of bullshit and you’d be fucked out of the room fairly quickly. I’m firmly in the fast-lane and there’s only one way I can go unless I get off the road. 

“Everybody keeps driving each other and no-one accepts anything less than the best. That’s a great credit to them.  But it drives everybody. You can’t turn up to training dopey some nights. You’ll be caught out by this group, big time.”

Cluxton, in particular, remains a huge driving force in this group, even at 37.

“You’re talking about probably the most influential player in Gaelic Games the last 15 years.  And there he is staring at you. You need to have your ‘A’ game on. But I love that. That’s what gives energy to us as a coaching group, the players keep driving you. 

“We challenge them, we give it back to them as well which is good and I think they enjoy that. They all understand clearly that the only reason we’re doing it is for the betterment of the team. 

“There’s an honesty and trust piece there at the minute that seems to be working.”

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He admits coaches and players haven’t always seen eye-to-eye over the years, but that’s par for the course with such a driven squad.

“We’ve had our moments! We’re pretty strong-minded people. There’s a lot of big dogs in that room. But, at the same time, once the understanding is that its in the best interests of the team and there’s no agenda other than to try to help, I think once that’s understood it will always function properly.”

Cluxton leads Dublin in the parade before the semi-final.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Cluxton’s former understudy John Leonard recalled in his 2015 autobiography the remarkable level of dedication he applied to his craft. 

“When I was training I was trying to get any edge I could,” Leonard wrote. “Initially, I tried to go in earlier than ‘Clucko’ but I couldn’t. He was in at 5 o’clock at training two hours ahead of everyone else. You could never get there before him.”

Darcy says Cluxton is still the first one through the gates at their St Clare’s training base. 

“I think it’s really important that your big players function correctly and set really good standards and a good culture within the group. He does that. 

“He doesn’t talk, he acts it. He does come to training two hours before it starts and he will do it. And he will tell you that you’re not doing it. 

“That’s what you want. If your top players are doing it consistently and you have enough of those players in your group then you have a chance of being successful for sure. 

“I’ve often said this, John O’Mahony used to say it to me, if you can get more than seven or eight of those types of players in your team then you have every chance of winning. If you have any less than then you’re not going to function. 

“We’re very lucky we have a very strong group in that context. A very experienced group of players as well, but all of us at the same time are trying to drive the standards. And Stephen certainly epitomises everything that’s good about this team.”

He’s still the one setting the standards, all these years after he growled at Caffrey. 

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