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Peter Canavan: Stephen Cluxton can inspire Dublin to handy triumph over Kerry

Big player: Stephen Cluxton’s contribution to Dublin’s cause has been immense
Big player: Stephen Cluxton’s contribution to Dublin’s cause has been immense
Jack Barry

By Peter Canavan

In many ways, the evolution of Stephen Cluxton has mirrored the evolution of Dublin football.

You have to go a long way back but there was once the feeling about Cluxton that if you pulled his tail he might hiss.

Cast your mind back to the keeper's 2003 sending off against Armagh. A petulant kick out at Steven McDonnell and Dublin crashed out of the championship to the then All-Ireland champions.

The same could be said of Dublin footballers throughout the 2000s. They had the capacity to be brilliant - there was no doubt about that. But it was well-known, too, that if you got under their skin, they would crack.

But both Cluxton and Dublin are unrecognisable from those days and when the Parnells man finally walks away, he will go down as the most influential player to play the game.

And it's been on his back, more than anyone else's, that this Dublin dynasty has been built. He must be the most studied and analysed player in the country but Cluxton's real genius is that no-one has figured him out.

He is so difficult to pre-empt. There's no obvious pattern or trend; nowhere that he prefers to send the ball and he has no-one he looks to particularly more than the other. Brian Fenton (15), James McCarthy (12) and Davy Byrne (12) have been his top three targets this summer.

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I sat down and went through the Mayo game to see what he did and when he did it. Dublin won six of eight kick-outs in the first half and five of eight after the restart. Of the contested kick-outs that went beyond the 45-metre line, Dublin actually lost more than they won, but it struck me that Cluxton isn't just worried about his retention stats. When he puts the ball down now he's thinking about how best he can set up a Dublin attack.

So when Peter Keane sat down to try and find a way to dethrone the champions, much of his focus will have been on the Dublin No 1.

In Kerry, they'll remember how they got some joy in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final when they unveiled that Aussie Rules-style high press but the problem with that is it's inviting Dublin to go long.

And if they win the ball in the middle third, they have a clear run on your full-back line. So you are damned if you do and damned if you don't but I think they need to take that risk.

Force the kick-outs long and do as Mayo did and turn the area around the breaking ball into a war zone.

That's why I think Keane should take a gamble on Jack Barry's fitness and start him. He hasn't played much all year but he has a superior physical presence around midfield than Adrian Spillane and is better in the air.

With the likes of McCarthy, Fenton, Michael Darragh Macauley and Brian Howard floating around there, David Moran will need all the help he can get in that regard.

Barry has also done quite well at limiting Fenton's influence in the past.

Barry would also be a better option for Shane Ryan from Kerry kick-outs. An outfielder for his club Rathmore, Ryan has been on quite the journey. Many might have expected Shane Murphy to be Kerry's first-choice goalkeeper this year but the numbers show that he is not far off Cluxton in terms of kick-out retention, with Kerry winning 76 per cent of his kick-outs against Cluxton's 83 per cent.

At times this year he has looked vulnerable when teams have applied pressure. Donegal and Meath picked off some kick-outs for scores in the Super 8s but Tyrone could never get to grips with him. To his credit, Ryan has improved as the season has progressed, but Dublin are masters at setting traps.

Before the Tyrone game, Dublin had picked off three short kick-outs in the championship and conceded 1-2. I expect him to keep it simple and go long as Kerry overload one side or the other.

The other curve ball Keane can throw at Jim Gavin is to start Tommy Walsh.

At times in the past, Dublin have looked vulnerable under the high ball.

In the semi-final and final last year, Tyrone and Galway plundered goals through the direct route.

Colm Cavanagh was fouled for a penalty in the final while Damien Comer flicked one to the net for Galway, too.

And when you consider that Rory O'Carroll wasn't part of the 26 for the Mayo game, then there's no obvious antidote to Walsh in the Dublin squad.

It's a risk, of course, but it's a calculated one because Dublin will be quietly confident they have enough to suppress Kerry's other big threats.

John Small looks tailor-made to track O'Brien. David Clifford will likely be doubled-teamed when he gets on the ball. Walsh's presence would force the Dublin sweeper to stay closer to goal and therefore afford Clifford, Paul Geaney and co a little more room.

It won't have gone unnoticed by Kerry management that not only did Walsh contribute handsomely against Tyrone, but his introduction coincided with Clifford and Geaney bursting into life. With the right ball, his presence can unsettle Cluxton too.

I've no doubt Kerry will throw everything at Dublin, and that they will be in contention in the second half but, when it comes down to it, all I can see is a handsome Dublin win.

When they were going for three in a row, I expected some complacency to set in but this group just doesn't operate that way.

Instead of falling off, they are getting better.

At the start of this All-Ireland-winning run in 2015, they conceded an average of 13.6 points per game and scored 24.6. This season they are conceding even less at 12.1 a game, while they are kicking an incredible average of 27 points.

Even allowing for football's evolution over that period that shows Dublin are only getting better.

Kerry are the coming team, but Dublin are the men of today. And I can see them underlining that with a double-figures win.

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