Howard shocked but happy with Cluxton return

By Michael McMullan

WHEN Stephen Cluxton walked through the doors of the Parnell Park dressing room in the middle of last year’s championship, Brian Howard thought it was a windup.

Fast forward to the All-Ireland final and when Kerry dropped off Howard, the Raheny man became Cluxton and Dublin’s kick-out pathway to get a hold on the game and back on the lugs of Sam Maguire.

Those deep in the inner workings of Dessie Farrell’s management team were aware a Cluxton return was on the cards despite missing much of the season’s action.

The experience and credentials as a goalkeeper who always delivered made Cluxton like the bonus signing at the eleventh hour of a soccer transfer window.

“Whatever capacity was going to be massive and then when I knew he was coming back as a ‘keeper and actually wanted to play, it was amazing because, again, he’s someone I looked up to from a young age,” Howard said at last week’s All-Ireland SFC launch at Glen’s Watty Graham Park.

Howard thought his days of sharing a dressing room with one of the game’s iconic players were gone. There wasn’t even a whimper of a comeback and with Cluxton a “closed book” any inkling would never see the light of day.

Less than 48 hours before meeting the press in Glen, Howard and Dublin looked to have missed top spot. Mayo led 0-17 to 0-16 in Dr Hyde Park and looked like they had done enough to top their group and send the Dubs into the mire of the preliminary quarter-finals.

Cluxton had other ideas. His kick-out found the leap of Ciarán Kilkenny. Jack McCaffrey injected pace into an attack before Cormac Costello squeezed an equaliser over the bar, with his less preferred hand, from the most testing of angles.

“Stephen he just had one job to do and that was to find a Dublin man,” said Howard. “There was also the catch from Ciarán that was incredible but we know that performance was a bit too close for comfort. We know that performance won’t be good enough for the next day regardless of who we play and so we need to really sharpen the axe there.”

Howard also had praise for the other Dublin ‘keepers in the fold – David O’Hanlon and Evan Comerford – and how Cluxton was “set the standard” for their development.

For all Cluxton’s success and top performances in high pressure environments, he keeps himself miles away from any limelight.

WE DID IT…Stephen Cluxton and Brian Howard share a moment after the 2020 All-Ireland final

“There’s probably a narrative out there that he’s very quiet and into himself,” Howard offers, “but he’s an amazing person. I know there’s a bit of an age gap between him and me but he’d be a friend that you’d have for life.

“He’d do anything for you as a person on the pitch him being able to pick you out whenever you need it whether it’s from kick out or his place kicking.

“You could even see the other day (in the draw with Mayo) he was out of the pitch a bit more but he still has it.”

Despite Cluxton being in his early 40s, Howard jokes about the relief not to have his ‘keeper putting the rest to shame when there is a fitness test rolled out.

Without needing to say anything, Cluxton’s level of preparation leaves a standard for young players coming into the panel to aspire to. It’s the do as I do and not as a say with Cluxton.

“He has so many championship appearances medals coming out of his pockets…to be able to be that driven and wanting success still at that age, it just inspires younger lads to come on,” Howard sums up.

“That’s the standard that he’s set and then you can even see that he’s been there before anybody else.

“He set the standards for likes of James McCarty, Mick Fitzsimons, then you have the other generation of the Brian Fentons, Ciarán Kilkennys…he set the standard for the whole of Dublin football.

“Anybody that’s come in through the last 20 odd years, he’s the benchmark. It’s amazing to have him again this year… obviously as a footballer but just as a person around the group. He’s such a motivational person but also someone that everybody looks up to.”

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