Picking the football and hurling All-Star teams is a hazardous business. Sitting down to select the Sunday Game team of the year the likes of Joe Brolly, Colm Cooper and co did a half decent job, but the omission of Dean Rock from the conversation was a notable talking point. So when the great and the good of the GAA writers sat down to select the best 15 hurlers and footballers of the year, it was obvious an unanimous decision was going to be difficult to reach. Is it ever any way else?

Unlike say Athletics where the best individual is easily defined, or soccer, where such prizes are only ever given to Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, there’s always going to be a degree of conjecture and opinion when it comes to the GAA. Statistics can be used to win any argument, but do statistics ever fully take into account the time that a particular intervention was made, or the momentum gained from a particular save/score? Someone can be the highest scorer in the early stages of the championship, but is that as valuable as someone who gets a vital goal or point in the last 10 minutes of an All-Ireland final?

But even given the fact, that there is no indisputable evidence that one player is inestimably better than another, riddle me this one. How can the All-Ireland football winning captain of the last 3 years, a man deemed by some observers, if not all, the best goalkeeper of all time, not be seen as the best goalkeeper on the All-Star team for any of those years? It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

Now Stephen Cluxton is never going to be a media darling. It’s difficult to attain the affection of a group of people voting for an award, if you insist on not speaking to them. Even given that though, there is a level of respect that needs to be paid. Writing after the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone this year,  Darragh O Se made the point that the problem that Cluxton has, is that he has been so good for so long, his excellence is taken for granted. https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/gaelic-games/darragh-%C3%B3-s%C3%A9-do-we-take-for-granted-how-good-stephen-cluxton-is-1.3202513 It’s almost unheard of him to win a man of the match award any more. He doesn’t just have to be better than the other players on the field. He also has to be immeasurably better than his normal standards in order to do so.

Let’s not forget also, this is a man who has almost single handedly changed the way the goalkeeping position in the sport has been viewed. Before Cluxton’s arrival, it was enough for a footballing goalkeeper to be a good shot stopper and have a long, if not particularly accurate, kick-out. Then Cluxton came along and started pinging balls 60 and 70 yards to onrushing half backs, and that became de rigeur. Nowadays the kick-out is seen as one of the most important facets of the game, and that’s pretty much all the Parnell’s man doing. As Jim McGuinness stated in his book, when discussing how Donegal were the last team to beat Dublin in the championship in 2014, the secret to dissecting Dublin, was deconstructing Cluxton’s kick out.

Now obviously that’s not to say that Cluxton has been completely ignored by award giving committees. In 2002 he won the Overall Young Sports personality of the year award (and the fact that they would use the word “personality” in these awards is an anomaly in itself). He also won three All Stars in the 00’s, more than he has done this decade. Back then, it was easier, in a way, to be a Dublin footballer. They weren’t winning All-Irelands every year, but there was a sense of affection towards the team. Back in the 00’s, Dublin were the lovable losers. But now, they’re serial winners, and it seems that selection committees deem that enough reward.

Now let me state, that I’m not saying this from the perspective of an embittered Dublin fan. I’m not from there, nor was I cheering for them to win the All-Ireland. But there seems to be something bigger at play here. If Stephen Cluxton had just been omitted from the All-Star team this year, you could put it down as an anomaly. The All-Star Selectors make odd decisions all the time. In 1994 Brian Whelehan was selected as Hurler of the Year, but he didn’t even win an All-Star! So the fact that Cluxton didn’t win an All-Star this year, isn’t that much of a gargantuan surprise. But the fact that he has been the All-Ireland winning goalkeeper for the last 3 years, and hasn’t won an All-Star in any of these years, makes you think there is something bigger afoot.

Now David Clarke is a fine goalkeeper and is definitely one of the best shot stoppers in the country, but last year he won the All-Star award, when even his county’s own manager didn’t select him for the All-Ireland final replay! So, it seems a bit odd that he would be selected as the best goalkeeper in the country, when Stephen Rochford and co are doubtful if he’s even the best keeper in Mayo. In this year’s All-Ireland final, he made a great save from Paul Mannion, but then Cluxton made a similarly important one from Jason Doherty. So maybe it’s a toss of a coin if he had a better year than the Dublin man. It’s just that in the last 3 years all of those borderline calls have gone against Dublin.

The situation of Andy Moran winning the Player of the year is a similar scenario. Now Andy had a fantastic season, no doubt, and it’s a tremendous achievement for a man in the twilight of his career to playing at such a high level. But the fact that it’s been a Mayo man the last 2 years who won the top individual award, would lead you to believe there is a level of sympathy with the awards, rather than purely a meritocratic one. Rather than Mayo winning the “big one” they have to satisfy themselves with the All-Stars and the Players of the Years. It’s similar to how Waterford hurlers have not won any All-Ireland medals in the last 20 years, but 3 of their players have won the top hurler of the year award.

Just like how there was an ennui around the country, when Kerry were cruising to All-Ireland football titles in the 70’s and 80’s, or the Kilkenny hurling side were all-conquering in the 00’s, there is a desire to see anyone other than Dublin winning football titles this decade. I understand that. If anything, I agree with that. But not picking their star players for teams of the year doesn’t really reflect well on anyone. It doesn’t reflect well on the selectors who pick the teams, and it doesn’t necessarily compensate the losing sides for not landing the title either.

As for the Dublin players, if anything, it’s probably just going to give them even more motivation for next year. Even if the selectors don’t value their ability, they have the medals to prove their worth. So maybe next year Cluxton will hit every one of his kick-outs, make innumerable saves, and the All-Star selectors will have to give them an award. And perhaps, as he’s walking up to collect the Sam McGuire for the fourth time running (as he probably will be), he might even thank those same selectors for giving him that extra edge he needed to win.


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