ON THE day of the All-Ireland football final in December, David Hickey, the former Dublin player, who was a selector under Pat Gilroy and a medic in the early part of Jim Gavin’s era, slashed and burned Mayo’s reputation in an interview in the Irish Examiner.
Hickey is entitled to his opinion.
He was the first to claim that Dublin would win the five-in-a-row, four years before they did so, but his comments on Mayo were crass and completely disrespectful to a group which, in any other era, would have been good enough to win at least two All-Irelands.
It has been Mayo’s misfortune to be around at the same time as Dublin, just as it was the great Waterford team of the 2000s ill-luck to have gone up against brilliant Kilkenny and Cork teams throughout that decade.
“Mayo win all the All-Stars awards and the player of the year and all this sort of crap but they always do because they’re such a tragic outfit,” said Hickey.
“Andy Moran getting player of the year — he played half a game in every match. The Mayo goalkeeper (David Clarke) getting the All-Star ahead of Cluxton there one year.”
Hickey’s referral to Clarke being less deserving of an All-Star ahead of Cluxton was a classic case of — bias aside — opinion without the back-up of proper information.
In 2017, Cluxton and Clarke were both shortlisted for Footballer of the Year but, based on being a shorter price for that award, Cluxton appeared to be favourite to win the All-Star.
He didn’t, and was beaten by Clarke for the second year in a row.
Cluxton conceded just two goals in that 2017 championship while Clarke shipped nine but Edwin McGreal, of the Mayo News, wrote a superb article in October 2017 outlining statistically why Clarke deserved the award.
Cluxton made four saves from six shots while Clarke made 10 saves from 19 shots.
Cluxton had a higher save ratio but McGreal argued that weight had to be afforded to the magnitude of Clarke’s saves, a number of which saved Mayo that season.
Cluxton has an edge over every other keeper with kickouts. Clarke’s kicking difficulties were underlined in that 2017 All-Ireland final when Mayo lost their last three kickouts.
However, Mayo still retained more of Clarke’s kickouts (82 per cent, 18/22) than Dublin did from Cluxton’s (76 per cent, 19/25) in the final.
In any other era, Clarke would be recognised as one of the greatest footballing goalkeepers but every other goalkeeper over the past decade has naturally been overshadowed by the greatest of all time.
Cluxton’s superior numbers, status, reputation and eight All-Ireland medals will always place him ahead of everyone else, but it is still remarkable how similar his and Clarke’s careers were at varying points.
They both made their league debuts in 2002; Cluxton against Donegal; Clarke against Kildare. Cluxton made his championship debut in 2001 while Clarke also first joined the Mayo senior panel that summer.
Later that season, he played in the Mayo U21 team that lost the All-Ireland final to Tyrone. Having also lost the minor final in 2000, losing All-Ireland finals unfortunately became a trend during Clarke’s career.
Yet those setbacks only made him stronger. Clarke endured and he made the most of his time because Clarke spent so much of the latter part of his career making up for lost time.
After winning a National League medal as a minor in 2001, Clarke’s future was put on hold after tearing his cruciate ligament in 2002.
Clarke finally got his chance when Peter Burke stepped away after 2014 but there always seemed to be a battle around every corner. Clarke was Mayo’s best player in the 2005 league but he was still only sub keeper to John Healy on the Ballina Stephenites team which won the All-Ireland club title that March.
Healy was goalkeeper in 2006 when Mayo won the Connacht title but he was replaced by Clarke for the All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Laois.
After playing in his first All-Ireland final in 2006, Clarke and Kenneth O’Malley rotated the position during the 2007 championship.
Clarke was back as number one in 2008 before suffering another injury, which handed O’Malley the jersey in 2009. Clarke reclaimed it in 2010 but a serious leg injury in 2011 allowed Robbie Hennelly to graduate in his absence.
A year later though, Clarke captained the team in the All-Ireland final against Donegal.
When Clarke got injured in the 2013 Connacht semi-final against Roscommon, tearing part of his hamstring off the bone, it took him a year to fully recover. Clarke was back number one again in 2015 until pulling his abductor in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal, which reopened the door for Hennelly.
Hennelly started the 2016 championship until Clarke reclaimed the jersey. Despite being the All-Star keeper in 2016, Clarke was dropped for that year’s All-Ireland final replay for Robbie Hennelly. Yet Clarke was shortlisted for Player-of-the-Year the following season.
Clarke kept on keeping on, continuing to search for that elusive All-Ireland medal with Mayo. His last game was another bitter All-Ireland defeat to Dublin but Clarke delivered one of his greatest kickout displays that afternoon.
Clarke departs the game without an All-Ireland senior medal but that certainly doesn’t make him a tragic figure.
The glory was in the pursuit, and in the honesty, resilience and integrity Clarke displayed in that chase.
And not having that medal won’t diminish Clarke’s class and brilliance, and status as one of the best goalkeepers of this era.