Like his eternal sibling, Anna Livia, he flows across Dublin’s history, an abiding, soothing, timeless landmark.
tephen Cluxton, football’s Ol’ Man River, just keeps on rolling along.
For 20 years, a sporting infinity, lean times giving way to sustained days of plenty, Cluxton has been a city milepost. Constant, reassuring, steadfast, indomitable.
Contemptuous of celebrity, enslaved only by the pursuit of excellence, he plays the game, then, like Keyser Soze, he is gone. Vanishing into thin air. Ceasing to exist.
Lifting Sam Maguire one moment, a puff of smoke the next.
Cluxton occupies unique territory on the Irish landscape: Familiar yet unknowable, ever-present yet elusive, a magnificent, navy-uniformed chimera.
Splendidly mute, even amid recent fevered speculation that the final curtain on his blockbuster, two-decade Broadway run might already have fallen.
The retirement rumours trailed Dublin across their league campaign, through spring and into early summer.
It seems inconceivable that the game’s most decorated thoroughbred – eight All-Irelands, seven as captain, 16 Leinster titles, five leagues, the first and only championship centurion – could just slip out to grass without fanfare or parade or a final goodbye to the Hill.
Until you remember, this is Cluxton: A gloved Garbo.
And realise it would be the perfect, unconventional, Omerta-observing final paragraph in the epic story of an athlete who wears his privacy like an impenetrable suit of armour.
The speculation is informed by his 2021 invisibility and some cold numbers.
Cluxton’s next birthday will be his 40th; for the first time in 20 years, he played no part in Dublin’s league campaign.
Against that, he is the listed building to whom all other listed buildings defer: The GAA’s Great Pyramid of Giza; a miraculous, immune-to-time, construction.
A triumph of longevity and beacon of consistency, among the most vivid threads in the game’s 135-year tapestry, a subversive who radically transformed the goalkeeper’s job description, and who stands once more, as so often before, at the gates of football history.
Should he stay or should he go, this most enduring of all the boys of summer?
Only Cluxton himself can answer. A perfectionist, he will be pitiless in his analysis of whether a body shortly to enter its fifth decade can continue to meet the ceaseless physical demands of elite sport.
It is true that, from the outside looking in, he continues to resemble Benjamin Button’s Celtic twin.
He was named Footballer of the Year just 18 months ago; there was not a hint of rust or slipping standards or diminished ambition in the recent winter campaign.
In Dublin’s five-game run to an unprecedented All-Ireland six-in-a-row, Cluxton didn’t concede a single goal.
All the traditional requirements of his trade – fast-twitch muscle fibres, elasticity, superior hand-to-eye coordination, astute decision making and, of course, that radar-like distribution – were present and correct.
What is certain is that his departure, whenever that may be, will leave a gaping void.
When he became a Three Castles made man, the Twin Towers still loomed over Manhattan. Nobody in Ireland had heard of a tiny Pacific outpost called Saipan. Brian Cody was a young manager with one All-Ireland to his name. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhone.
And, the clincher, final indisputable proof that the world he entered on May 27, 2001 (a 2-19 to 1-13 victory over Longford) spun on a different axis: Dublin, subservient and adrift, had not won a Leinster title in six years.
Nobody has played a more central role in the Sky Blue transformation from flaky poster boys for underachievement to powerhouse standard-setter.
On Dublin’s Mount Rushmore, his stoic profile rises above even the greatest of those – John O’Leary and Paddy Cullen – who went before him.
Sire of the goalkeeping upheaval, his PhD in the science of kick-outs elevated those with the No.1 shirt on their back into precision missiles, quarterbacks, masters of strategy.
How often can it be said of an individual that he radically metamorphosed an entire sport?
A daring soloist, Cluxton rose above the choir. It is hardly an exaggeration to label him the most innovative footballer of the 21st century.
He redefined, hugely expanded the goalkeeper’s role: No longer just an extinguisher of fires, but the kindling from which was born a new and brilliant flame.
Goalkeeper as creative hub, first line of attack.
His kick-outs, carrying the deadly payload of his laser-controlled accuracy, became Dublin’s nuclear weapon, gifted the city superpower status.
He compelled his peers to refine their game or disappear to the margins. The kick-out replaced shot-stopping as a goalkeeper’s must-have skill.
Opposing coaches scampered to devise tactics that might limit the influence of Dublin’s point guard.
Cluxton’s ability to continually guide the ball into the few inches of airspace immediately above James McCarthy, Michael Darragh Macauley, Cian O’Sullivan, Denis Bastick, Diarmuid Connolly and, later, Brian Fenton and Brian Howard, bordered on miraculous.
It seemed entirely fitting that in 2011, when Dublin, after 16 years, found themselves On Canaan’s Side, it was Cluxton who kicked the point that propelled them to paradise.
Perhaps the greatest testament to a career of freakish high achievement, is that his misfires, like rain in the Sahara, are so easily recalled precisely because they are so rare.
Place his career under a microscope and still only a very few blemishes are visible.Ten minutes against Kerry a few summers ago, quickly righted wobbles in the company of Fermanagh and Mayo, a sending off against Armagh back at the dawn of time.
Cluxton is the antithesis of the TikTok generation.
He doesn’t do fuss or distraction or self-promotion: There is the game, 70-odd minutes in the arena. Nothing else.
First to training, relentlessly pursuing the last molecule of potential. A setter of standards; by his deeds a leader.
Dublin’s dressing-room is populated by so many hall-of-fame footballers. Yet, even among such a cast, Cluxton might be unique. Because he seems close to irreplaceable.
When he takes off his gloves for the last time – if it hasn’t already happened – Dublin will be diminished.
When he walks away, Cluxton won’t make a speech or strike a pose.
He will depart as he lived his entire football life: Hushed, indifferent to external noise, allowing an unrivalled, imperishable body of work to sing its own glowing song of praise.