Joe Canning has sights on taking Galway one step further
County captain looking to emulate his club success with Portumna in the maroon colours of county
Joe Canning hopes to emulate his All-Ireland club success with Portumna in Galway colours this year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
The first appearance of Joe Canning in maroon this year was distinctly low-key. The afternoon when Galway and Limerick met at the Gaelic Grounds was resolutely of March: changeable and vaguely ominous skies. Although not named in the match programme, Canning took the field wearing number 19 and warmed up almost unnoticed with his team-mates in the always sombre shadow of the Mackey Stand.
Just before throw-in, he retreated to the dressingroom and his intercounty season officially began when he took the field for the closing minutes of what was a comfortable if unspectacular win for Galway.
With Canning now restored to the team, the summer comes into sharper focus and once again the familiar questions must have crossed the minds. But all of Galway hurling questions can be distilled in to one: Could this be the year? It is barely conceivable that Galway hurling could be gifted a hurler as prodigiously complete and talented as Canning and still not win an All-Ireland title during his career.
And yet Joe has been a senior now since 2008, when he made the transition from minor to senior star with staggering assurance, posting 2-12 as Galway exited to Cork. If there was a warning in that evening, it was that Galway lost: even with Canning at his most celestial, there are limits to what any lone player can achieve.
Of all the lavish descriptions and breathless superlatives used to chart Canning’s contribution to the game, it is the throwaway utterance that Babs Keating made in the early years after witnessing Canning execute a powerful and clean sideline cut, which echoes most clearly. It was, Keating said, “something I’ve never seen before . . . and I am watching hurling since 1953”.
That casual invocation of the mid-century was the most substantial declaration that, in Canning, Galway had its once-in-a-lifetime talent. Now, unbelievably, Canning is preparing for his seventh summer with Galway. After Galway exited from last year’s All-Ireland championship against an irrepressible Clare side, Canning returned to Portumna and to a club season that finished with another All-Ireland title for his club on March 17th. He permitted himself a few days of celebrations and then reported for Galway training with the other Portumna squad regulars.
“Straight up, it does take a bit of adjustment,” he says on a terrifically sunny day in Dublin. “Just coming down from the high of winning an All-Ireland to playing league is a small bit tough. You are doing different training too, trying to peak for St Patrick’s Day so you feel as if you are at a different stage. But you are champing at the bit to just get back training and get on the team.
“The competition is tough in that squad now and you can see guys who have been playing for the past few years finding it tough to get their place in the team so there are new guys coming into the picture which has to be good for us.”
Last summer took Kilkenny and Galway, victors and runners up in the 2012 season, by surprise. Canning was impressed by Davey Fitzgerald’s Clare team, but is reluctant to allow that Clare’s game plan represented any great departure from what teams were trying in previous years.
“To be straight up about it, if you look closely at how Galway played in 2012 there are a lot of comparisons there, as in bringing an extra man out. They did it better than us and perfected it, maybe. So a lot of people said that was a new tactic but I feel that we played very similar to that in 2012, being honest. But they had the momentum and game plan and luck and they were fully deserving of the All-Ireland in the end.”
Canning has said before that he hasn’t dwelt greatly on the gripping 2012 All-Ireland final series against Kilkenny, but patiently allows a quick sketch of the opening half of the drawn game, when the maroon team startled Kilkenny with a fabulous scoring rush which, for a few minutes anyhow, seemed to signal that this, at last, was Galway’s day.
It was as close as any Galway hurling person has felt to the being All-Ireland champions since 1988 – and Canning himself was born just a few weeks after Conor Hayes lifted the MacCarthy Cup. When Canning reviews the match in his mind, it was the three or four priceless points that Kilkenny scraped together before half-time which killed the challengers. The drawn match is remembered for the late frees which fell to Canning: the first drifted wide but under enormous pressure, he delivered the score which gave Galway another day out.
“It was the three or four points that we conceded just before half-time that pegged us back. That was the critical point of the first game. Maybe if we didn’t concede half of that, we would have been All-Ireland champions. And a lot of people have said to me about the free I missed. And yeah, I missed it. I take that on the chin and I am sorry for that but at the same time, if I had scored that, I mightn’t have got the chance to score the other one.”
He has had plenty of appraisals about that missed free on and off the field that day and puts it down to the joys of being a high-profile hurler.
“Oh yeah, yeah. That is a regular occurrence,” he says lightly. “I get that a lot – that I bottled it that day. And I probably did, you know. But I will take that on the chin. That happens in sport and you just get on with it. And lucky enough, I got the chance after that.”
Kilkenny’s demonic turn in the replay, inspired by a lone charge by Henry Shefflin, reminded Galway that there was no good way to lose an All-Ireland. 2012 was added to the “nearly years” of 1993, 2001 and 2005.
Last year’s subdued summer seemed to suggest that the purpose and momentum of the previous year had ebbed away. As ever, there were enquiries as to how and why the county side had taken its latest wrong turn. One constant theory is that the club rivalry in Galway, which always seems to walk the narrow line between fierceness and bitterness, is a source of underlying tension between those players chosen to hurl from Galway.
Portumna’s recent dominance in the Galway championship – last autumn’s title was the sixth since their inaugural win since 2003 – has made them a source of envy among other clubs. Canning has heard about the club factor more often than he can remember since he started hurling for Galway and is tired of it.
“I don’t believe for one second that it has any bearing on anything. You hear all these rumours from people that aren’t actually involved in the set up and will tell you that ‘ahh, these lads aren’t talking because they played against each other in the club last week’. And to be honest, that is a load of bullshit.
“There were rumours and rumours going on in Galway and it is great that they can find the time to talk about it when none of it is factually based. The players on the Galway panel get on very, very well together. You have the people that if it doesn’t go well for the county, then there is unrest.
“There was never anything brought up in 2012 when we were going well about club rivalries causing problems. So how come one year, the rivalry is a problem and then the next it isn’t? It doesn’t make sense.
“It is a club championship. When we finish that and are back in with the county, it is forgotten about. People can talk but unless they have facts, it is just hearsay. I wouldn’t believe everything I hear or read.”
Already, he has a perfect season behind him but he is looking forward to the latest hour of silk and attrition against Kilkenny. He is captain this year, a duty he sees as honorary more than anything else. He feels the county side are in a good space and speaks glowingly of Eugene Cloonan, back now as a selector. The presence on the sideline of the Athenry natural, who presaged Canning’s precocious talent, is enough to make even taciturn hurling people sentimental. Cloonan is a poignant reminder that lone brilliance guarantees nothing for Galway.
“He was one of the greatest forwards playing the game at the time and one of the best Galway ever had,” Canning says.
“We are really grateful that he is working with us and to see what we can learn off him. He was a very intelligent guy on the field and that is there in the way he coaches us at the moment. He is a players’ guy and is very cool and calm. If we can just learn a small bit off him, then all the better.”
The championship hurling lives of Cloonan and Canning intersected just once, when the younger man was in his debut season and they lined out for what was a rout of Antrim up in Belfast. Shortly afterwards, Cloonan succumbed to the back problems which cut short his brilliant light and so the weight of hope and fear which characterise Galway hurling was passed onto Joe Canning.
“There is always pressure,” he says evenly. “There is pressure every time you put on the jersey. If you didn’t feel that, there is probably something wrong with you.
“I am 25 now, probably one of the older players in the panel. But look, there are 40 people involved in our squad: I am just one part of the jigsaw. So I don’t see my role as being any different than in that first year. And it does seem a long time ago in that I was playing alongside Eugene then. Now he is there coaching me. So yeah, time does move along fairly quickly.”
Joe Canning will be participating in the Wings for Life world run in Killarney on May 4th, a global charity event in aid of spinal cord injury research. Visit wingsforlife.com to sign up.