There’s a strong case to be made that Mayo’s David Clarke should retain his All Star award
WHEN Kilkenny hurlers were in their pomp, there used to be criticism of how, despite keeping so many clean sheets, their goalkeeper James McGarry never won an All Star.
Frequently, it was the brilliant Brendan Cummins of Tipperary who got the gong. The reason was quite simple. So miserable was the Kilkenny defence that McGarry had to make next to no saves.
Cummins, on the other hand, was a one-man firefighter at times for Tipp. McGarry never got much of a chance to show his prowess as a shot-stopper because opposition forwards rarely got close enough to see the whites of his eyes with Messrs Kavanagh, Hickey and Delaney standing guard.
There’s a bit of that when you consider the goalkeeper All Star in football this year. Though Niall Morgan has been nominated, it is clearly a two-horse race between Stephen Cluxton of Dublin and Mayo’s David Clarke, after both were shortlisted for Footballer of the Year.
We’re not quite sure either goalkeeper should be in that shortlist – Dublin have better contenders in the likes of Dean Rock, Con O’Callaghan and Cian O’Sullivan; Mayo in Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and Aidan O’Shea.
But that’s beside the point. Cluxton appears to be favourite, based on being a shorter price for Footballer of the Year.
There is no doubting his brilliance. He has been one of the most influential players in the modern game. His role has redefined the goalkeeping position in Gaelic football and he has now captained Dublin to four All-Ireland titles, a record for any player in Gaelic football.
But looking at the 2017 season in isolation, has he performed better than Clarke?
We don’t think so. Like James McGarry, Cluxton might be a victim of his team’s success.
Because of how good Dublin were in devouring teams this year, there was very little work for Cluxton to do in a shot-stopping sense.
The Dublin captain has had just six shots to deal with this summer. He’s been beaten twice – by Lee Keegan in the All-Ireland Final and by Kildare’s Paddy Brophy late on in the Leinster Final.
Of his four saves, the two best were also the two most important. His final save from Jason Doherty stopped Mayo going two points up.
The Leinster final saw, arguably, his best save. A strong one-handed stop from Daniel Flynn’s point-blank shot showed superb reactions and stopped Kildare coming within three points of the Dubs.
His penalty save from Peter Harte in the All-Ireland semi-final, and when he denied Monaghan’s Jack McCarron a goal in the previous round were both decent saves but came at stages when the result was beyond doubt.
Four saves from six shots is a very good return for Cluxton, but it must be said six shots is a low sample size.
David Clarke has had no such luxury.
The Ballina man conceded eight goals this summer compared to Cluxton’s two. Clarke did have four more games due to Mayo’s very circuitous route.
In all, he had to deal with 18 shots this summer, saving ten and conceding eight. It’s not as high a save ratio as Cluxton’s (56 percent versus 67 percent) but weight has to be afforded for the magnitude of Clarke’s saves due to the amount of cliff-edges Mayo faced.
Like Cluxton, he saved a relatively inconsequential penalty, in extra-time against Derry. While Mayo were five up and though not necessarily out of sight, Derry looked spent after their efforts when Clarke saved from James Kielt.
And moments after Cluxton saved from Doherty in the final, Clarke spread himself well to deny Paul Mannion at the other end.
After that, there is a litany of saves from Clarke, without some of which Mayo would not have been playing in September but for the reigning All Star.
His first half stop from Derry’s Carlos McWilliams stopped Mayo going four down. A goal there would have made Mayo’s ponderous comeback more difficult.
Seven days later against Clare he made two big saves in a first half where Mayo were under the cosh and went 0-6 to 0-1 down at one stage.
Arguably though his save of the year was against Cork, getting his fingertips to a flicked goal effort from Tomás Clancy. It looked like it may have been going over anyway so what it might have lost in importance it gained in dexterity.
Against Kerry, in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final, Clarke was unlucky to see his save from David Moran’s shot fall to Johnny Buckley and end up in the net.
His most important intervention came after that, racing from his line to superbly block Jack Barry’s shot. Kerry were a point up going into the last quarter and in the tit-for-tat game that it was, that could have been the death knell.
Of the goals he conceded, Clarke will not be happy with Mark Lynch’s effort for Derry where he was out-jumped. Full-back Ger Cafferkey was quite culpable here too though, allowing Lynch an uncontested run for the late equaliser to send the game to extra-time.
It was a rare example of Clarke being caught under a high ball. He has been very commanding of his square all year and his prowess under a high ball is also evidenced by him fielding two point efforts over his crossbar this summer.
His league form is worth noting too. Clarke made ten saves throughout the league, conceding four goals. Were it not for him, Mayo could be in Division 2 next year.
Interestingly he saved the two penalties he faced in the league, from David Moran in Kerry and from Paddy Andrews in Croke Park (following it up with a remarkable double save on the rebound).
It means Clarke has saved the last three penalties he has faced for Mayo, the last successful penalty against him being Diarmuid Connolly’s in the 2016 All-Ireland Final replay.
HOWEVER, in the modern game, no analysis of goalkeepers is complete without an assessment of their kick-outs.
Cluxton’s brilliance has seen teams all over the country set targets for winning their own kick-outs and Cluxton’s numbers this summer have been impressive.
The Dublin captain has taken 121 kick-outs in Dublin’s six games and found a teammate with 102 of them, meaning Dublin won 84 percent of their kick-outs.
Of their total kick-outs, Cluxton kicked short or to space with 81 percent of his kicks and long with the other 19 percent.
What might surprise many is just how well David Clarke’s figures compare. Many people have spoken of the Ballina man’s kick-out being a weakness in Mayo this summer and while his restarts have not always been flawless, he has managed to find a team-mate with 80 percent of them (179/223).
Of his 223 kick-outs in ten games this summer, Clarke has went short or to space 65 percent of the time and went long with 35 percent of his kicks.
Given that more teams have pressed up on Mayo this summer than Dublin – and it’s easy to see why when Mayo have looked vulnerable at times – those returns off Clarke’s kick-outs are very impressive.
Teams are less likely to press Dublin’s kick-outs (Mayo being the exception in the first half of the final) as it creates a man-on-man situation which few teams are confident enough to give them if the Dubs manage to win their own kick-out.
On the flip-side, Clarke does have better long targets in the likes of Aidan O’Shea (who Mayo made more use of as a fielder this summer), Tom Parsons and Seamie O’Shea than Dublin.
However, what was very noticeable about Clarke this year was his ability to find an under pressure colleague with a short kick-out where there was very little margin for error, something which took huge composure. Clarke then often went to receive the pass back and Mayo had their possession secure.
In the final, Clarke finished poorly. Mayo lost their last three kick-outs and, crucially, his last kick went over the sideline.
However, Mayo still retained more of Clarke’s kick-outs (82%, 18/22) than Dublin did from Cluxton’s (76%, 19/25) in that game.
There is no doubt who the best goalkeeper of this generation has been. Cluxton is arguably the best goalkeeper of all time. His five All Stars reflect that and there were other years he was unfortunate not to make it. But as far as 2017 goes, David Clarke was the busiest, the man more central to his team’s progress, and we feel he should be the All Star selection.