IN the 35th minute of the Kerry county final in September, David Clifford once again underlined his genius, outrageous talent and assassin mentality in a magnesium flash that neatly encapsulated that amalgam of brilliance.
Taking a pass from his East Kerry and Kerry team-mate Dara Moynihan, Clifford made an angled run outside the 20-metre line to get away from Kerry team-mate Peter Crowley. As soon as Clifford gathered possession, he unleashed a shot from the 20-metre line that ripped into the top corner. The power of the strike lifted the net clean off the ground.
The score went viral on social media but nobody in east Kerry was surprised; they’d seen something similar years earlier. Fossa played Dr Crokes in an U16 game when Clifford caught a ball 30 yards out and he somehow had the ball almost kicked before the catch. The shot flew into the top corner. Clifford was still only 14.
The same year, Fossa lost a John Egan U14 tournament to Laune Rangers by one point. The final score was 4-13 to 4-12. Clifford kicked the 4-12.
At just 14 Clifford was already showcasing how special he could be. Just seven years on, with successive All-Stars bagged by the age of 20, Clifford has the potential to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
"David actually has the potential to be better than Gooch (Colm Cooper) and Maurice (Fitzgerald),” said Mikey Sheehy last November. “The potential is there to be the best ever.”
Around the same time, Cooper agreed that Clifford could yet become the greatest Kerry player of all time. "It’s impossible because we have no idea how fit and healthy he’ll be,” said Cooper. “But he has the potential to be."
He has the maturity to handle that burden because Clifford has always shown a worldliness beyond his years. The former Kerry player, Seán O’Sullivan, once recalled a story from his time as Kerry U14 coach in 2013, when Kerry travelled to a tournament in Waterford.
Clifford picked up an injury before they played Cork in the semi-final, but as the selectors huddled to pick a team, Clifford approached them. He suggested they start him so he could go about keeping the defence honest and busy, which would free up somebody else. Clifford set up 1-4 that afternoon.
The first time Clifford pricked the wider footballing consciousness was the 2016 Hogan Cup final when he scored 2-5 against St Pat’s Maghera in Croke Park. His second goal that afternoon neatly captured his capacity for sorcery but Clifford scored an even better solo-goal just five months later in the All-Ireland minor final against Galway, when first winning possession beyond midfield.
In the All-Ireland minor final a year later against Derry, Clifford had the ball in the net within ten seconds of the throw-in. He ended the match with 4-4, concluding his minor career as an All-Ireland winning captain, and with a haul of 10-68 in 12 championship matches.
The last time a minor player triggered as much debate as to their anticipated ascension to senior level was Galway’s Joe Canning. That was the status Clifford carried before his senior debut but the expectation was heightened again because of the inevitable comparisons between Clifford and Maurice Fitzgerald.
Clifford had the same languid, graceful gliding movement and brilliance as Fitzgerald, while he also had the same magic in his boots and game-intelligence as Colm Cooper. Being spoken about in the same breath as Fitzgerald and Cooper added to the pressure but Clifford has clearly embraced the responsibility.
In the modern game, where every player is naked to the camera, Clifford’s game is analysed to death. He is hunted and targeted from match to match. Even at just 21, there is constant pressure on Clifford to verify his status.
When Kerry met Dublin in the league in January, Kerry were trailing by one point when Clifford nailed a difficult free with the last kick.
That week, Clifford was named Kerry captain, he’d celebrated his 21st birthday, while Seán O’Shea had been taking the frees in the game until he’d been sent off minutes earlier.
As Clifford squared up to the kick, a host of Dubs were trying to put him off. “I'm sure all those things are going through his mind if he's normal,” said Kieran Donaghy two days later. “But then again maybe he's not normal.”
Clifford is such a freak that he could have turned his hand to anything. When he played soccer with Killarney Celtic at U14, scouts had their eye on him. The AFL tried to entice him over to Australia. Clifford only plays golf in his spare time but he’s reportedly deadly. His team-mates say he is even a brilliant singer.
Improvement has always been Clifford’s mark and master. He hones his game intelligence from being a student of all sports. Everything is distilled into trying to become a better player. Young players can always get better but, even at just 21, age is immaterial to his talents. Clifford’s class is ageless. From the very beginning Clifford has belonged centre-stage.
His greatest feats are merely fulfilling the expectations that always followed Clifford. His moments of intuitive brilliance have dominated the highlights reels but the essence of Clifford as a player is much greater than that. He has a warrior's spirit, a fighter's heart, a steel mind.
And if Cork are to beat Kerry on Sunday, shutting Clifford down – whether that’s contaminating the supply going in, adhesively man-marking him, double-marking him, or playing a sweeper in front of him – will be absolutely paramount to Cork’s chances.