Pat Spillane: David Clifford is the Lionel Messi and Johnny Sexton of Gaelic football

It was a privilege to see him produce another masterclass in the Kerry County Championship final last Sunday

David Clifford demonstrated all the skills of Gaelic football in a masterclass against Mid Kerry. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

David Clifford of East Kerry gave a masterclass against Mid Kerry at Austin Stack Park last weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

David Clifford's brother Paudie supplies the ammunition for the Kerry sharpshooter. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

Words fail me when it comes to describing how good David Clifford is.

It a bit like trying to explain why Michelangelo was a great artist and sculptor, and Skellig Michael is the most beautiful place in Ireland. Words, alone, are insufficient.

Just go and watch him.

It was a privilege to see him produce another masterclass in the Kerry County Championship final last Sunday. He scored 1-6 from play, as well as converting a mark and two frees, to bring his personal tally to 1-9.

Furthermore, he provided four assists. All told, he was involved in 14 of East Kerry’s 17 scores. It was a special Man-of-the-Match performance.

Just 23, he is already one of the greatest players we have ever seen.

His scoring statistics are off the wall. In 48 inter-county games he has been held scoreless from play on just two occasions.

He was won four All-Stars in five years. He was named Player of the Year at the All-Star banquet and was Man of the Match in both the All-Ireland final and the county final.

In 27 league matches he has notched up 13-110 (11-78 from play) and, in 21 Championship ties, he has hit 7-89.

David Clifford of East Kerry gave a masterclass against Mid Kerry at Austin Stack Park last weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Bear with me, as I attempt to explain what makes him so special.

Standing 6ft 3 inches tall, he is an imposing unit, well capable of winning his own ball.

He is not intimidated by rough-house tactics and is rarely dispossessed.

His soloing style reminds me of a basketball player dribbling the ball. He shields it with his body, making it very difficult to dispossess him.

Furthermore, he uses his long arms to push away defenders – literally, keeping the ball at arm’s length from them.

He controls the height of the hop better than most players, which again makes it difficult to take the ball away from him.

He has admirable composure and doesn’t do panic. Think of that clutch point he scored from under the Cusack Stand late on in the All-Ireland final against Galway. Trust me, it wasn’t a gimmie point.

Nine times out of ten he makes the right call. He is not selfish and, indeed, is the quintessential team player – because he will always pass the ball to a better-placed colleague.

His game intelligence is illustrated by the fact that he is one of the few forwards who has figured out that making a forward ‘mark’ is a gimmie point. He is always on the lookout to make a mark.

Like Shane Walsh, he is two-footed – and blessed with a great balance. A defender has no idea of whether he will go left or right, which makes marking him all the more challenging.

His movement off the ball is superb; he is brilliant at drifting across the defence, or going behind defenders to receive a diagonal pass.

His ability to create time and space on the ball – like he did last Sunday with a hand-off – hopping the ball, or with his famous dummy solo, are second to none.

Having mastered all the skills in the game he comes as the complete package. All forwards please note: he rarely strays beyond the attacking 45m line.

David Clifford's brother Paudie supplies the ammunition for the Kerry sharpshooter. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

There are two intangible factors in his favour. His parents are very supportive of him, but they also keep him grounded.

Secondly, the Kerry football culture means there is no danger of success going to his head.

Down here, every player is judged on how they performed in their LAST game – here there is an All-Ireland medallist living in virtually every parish.

So, there is no chance of anybody, including Clifford, getting notions above their station.

Though he might not be the speediest player over a short distance, he’s a bit like the famous West German captain Franz Beckenbauer.

He conceded that while he might not have been the fastest between points A and B, he never started at A.

The big question is: how do you stop him?

He has dismantled swarm and blanket defences, and disarmed double sweepers.

But in his post-match interview last Sunday he hinted at why he had been so effective. He referenced the quality of the ball his brother Paudie, and others on the East Kerry team, sent in his direction.

The way to stop David Clifford is to make sure you cut his supply lines at source.

A striker without the ball is like a gunfighter without bullets.

Undoubtedly, he is one of the greatest players in the game at the moment. But he has a distance to go until he can be classified as the greatest ever.

Crucially, this current Kerry team will need to win several more All-Ireland titles in order for him to copper-fasten his reputation as the greatest ever. But above all, David needs to stay injury-free.

In 2014, James O’Donoghue was the Footballer of the Year – and looked to have the world at his feet. But due to a string of injuries, he never realised his true potential.

Gooch Cooper looked capable of breaking every record going until he ruptured his cruciate ligament in 2014. He was never the same player afterwards.

So can we just sit back and admire the talents and gifts of David Clifford?

Truly, the lad is to Gaelic football what LeBron James is to basketball, Johnny Sexton is to rugby or Lionel Messi is to soccer.

Class embodied in seven scores

To illustrate his greatest strengths, here is a description of David Clifford’s seven scores from play in the Kerry final.

4:38 minutes: Running laterally, he loses his marker and sweeper before receiving the ball. He hops it once, to buy time, before launching a high-trajectory kick with his right foot. 0-1.

22:08: Wins another diagonal pass, turns and shoots a point with his left foot. 0-2.

30:49:Drifts out towards the 45 to get on the ball. He creates space with a dummy hop on the left, before kicking a monster with another right-footed kick. He actually aims it ten metres right of the post, and it curls in. 0-3.

40:00: He stoops low to catch a ball near his ankles, then tumbles over in a forward roll before getting up; then pushes away his marker with a hand-off and kicks a point with his left. 0-4.

44:51: On the edge of the square, he faces two defenders and the goalkeeper on the line. But he rolls the ball into the net with a side-footed pass. 1-4.

48.23: Fields a diagonal kick and hits a point with his left foot. He creates space with a hop to the right, a dummy solo on the right and then there is a hop on the left as he hits another point. 1-5.

61:29: Drifts behind the defenders, signals where he wants the ball before turning and kicking it over with his left. 1-6.

It was a masterclass in forward play. Get the video.

Kerry’s format needs a revamp

This year’s Kerry County Football Championship was like a Mills and Boon novel.

There might be twists along the way. But we knew how it would end – a win for divisional side East Kerry.

In theory, allowing district teams to compete in the Kerry Championship is a good idea. It enables players from smaller clubs to play in the premier competition.

However, in football terms, East Kerry has become a monster.

Their divisional side is made up of nine clubs, all drawing players from big areas of population. Five of the clubs compete in the Kerry Intermediate Championship.

Fourteen of their starting team last Sunday had won either Senior, Minor or Junior All-Ireland medals. They had five All-Stars playing, including three from the 2022 team; David and Paudie Clifford, and goalkeeper Shane Ryan.

Two other members of the Kerry squad were on the East Kerry bench. Donal O’Sullivan from Kilgarvan, who scored 2-13 in the novice final the previous week, got eight minutes of game time, while Paul O’Shea saw less than five minutes action at the end.

Aside from David Clifford’s superb performance, it was a disappointing game. The muted reaction when the final whistle sounded summed it all up.

The Kerry County Championship needs to be reformed. The structure, with eight club sides and eight divisional sides competing, is not working.

The competition needs a minimum of 12 senior clubs involved, with six advancing to the quarter-finals. The eight divisional teams can fight it out for the two remaining spots in the quarters.

By increasing the number of senior clubs to 12 in Kerry, it would give the Intermediate and Junior champions from other counties a fairer chance in the provincial and All-Ireland series.

They are playing teams who should be competing at senior level so Kerry clubs dominate the Intermediate and Junior All-Ireland club series. Reform is a must.

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