Canning and Galway still determined to silence the critics

Long years of frustration ensure Tribesmen feel they have unfinished business to attend to

Joe Canning after the victory over Clare in Thurles. “We had a lot of doubters outside our group, even in our home county. It’s just great that we could quieten a few today.”  Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Joe Canning after the victory over Clare in Thurles. “We had a lot of doubters outside our group, even in our home county. It’s just great that we could quieten a few today.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

There was much indignation and surprise when, in the minutes after Galway’s draining hurling semi-final replay win over Clare, Joe Canning made a pointed reference to the lack of respect for the All-Ireland champions.

“We had a lot of doubters outside our group, even in our home county. It’s just great that we could quieten a few today.

On the face of it, after a two-game epic in which both teams stretched themselves to breaking point, the remarks struck a discordant note. Had anyone questioned Galway’s quality or worth?

In the days afterwards, Canning’s perspective was challenged and, in some quarters, dismissed. But just because you haven’t seen it in blazing headlines doesn’t mean the Galway players don’t feel it. Just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean they can’t. It is going to take a lot more than one senior hurling All-Ireland title before this group feel that they have set the world to rights.

Who can guess at the Galway hurling mentality? Has any collection of Irish sportsmen ever been psychoanalysed and questioned and dismissed as frequently and deeply as those who have worn the maroon since 1988?

Through what Cyril Farrell memorably identified as the twin forces of ‘history and geography’ Galway has always been the outlier in hurling’s elite tier; the team and county that the establishment has never been able to categorise or fully understand: a volatile and unreliable hurling maverick capable of sabotaging the summer ambitions of a Kilkenny or Tipperary but just as likely as implode.

From ’88, being sufficiently brilliant to hurl for Galway was both a dangerous and, frequently, a short-lived gift. The losing years piled up in one way or another; the huge cast of underage stars were given limited minutes with which to prove themselves, players and managers came and went and it seemed as if nobody could find the right combination.

The teenage Joe Canning’s technical brilliance and physical strength began as a whisper but was quickly magnified into a countywide yearning: when the Portumna kid was old enough to wear senior, then the wait would be over. It was an absurd burden of expectation to place on any one person but in his ridiculously accomplished first season, he hinted that he might just drag the county over the line on his own.

Canning has been at the epicentre of the Galway hurling conversation throughout his adult life.

As lavishly praised as his moments of outrageous touch and instinct were, the obligation to deliver an All-Ireland for Galway intensified with each passing season. As he approached his late 20s, it became apparent to supporters that Canning would not be playing forever; that he, too, might come and go without winning a Celtic Cross.

Brutal allegation

And don’t think he didn’t hear about it. Don’t think he hasn’t heard plenty of it on the field or coming from the stands – and from Galway voices too. It was a subject he stared straight in the face when he sat down for an interview with the Irish Times in May last year.

“If I retire without that happening, will it define me? It probably will. But in my own head, it won’t. And I do enjoy it now. I wouldn’t play if I didn’t because the pressures are so great. I play hurling for Mam and Dad. For nobody else, like. I play for their enjoyment really.”

After that conversation, he headed for Blackrock for a swim in the sea. The water was still winter cold by then. Little over three months later, Canning had his All-Ireland and delivered a hurler-of-the-year summer. But that was just over a year since a collapse in the league in Salthill against Wexford provoked a flurry of texts to Galway Bay FM demanding that Micheáll Donoghue should go.

Joe Canning scores with a a crucial late sideline cut in the semi-final replay victory over Clare at Semple Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Joe Canning scores with a a crucial late sideline cut in the semi-final replay victory over Clare at Semple Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

This was the same group against whom Ger Loughnane – who gave Canning his senior debut – had levelled the brutal allegation of being ‘gutless’, a remark so pointed that it prompted Brian Cody to declare it wrong. Loughnane’s choice of word was a savage accusation of the more nuanced criticism Galway teams had faced down the years; that there was something missing within. That for all the hurling within the county, there was something absent that prevented their seniors from fulfilling their talent.

Anyone on the outside can only guess at the disillusionment and frustration and hurt that Galway hurlers must have felt, season after season. Theirs had become an incredibly complex and dangerous legacy of defeat.

The decision to remove Anthony Cunningham, a multi-All-Ireland winner whose Galway teams threatened and tantalised in the finals of 2012 and 2015 against Kilkenny’s waning imperiousness, smacked of a squad desperate to break the cycle. It was a cold, deliberate move and it caused tension and even bitterness within the county. And after 2016, nothing much seemed to have changed. Galway were close – but no closer to being champions – after being edged out by Tipp’ in a semi-final classic.

They haven’t lost a championship match since.

Michael Donoghue’s public persona has been one of polite, steadfast blankness and a refusal to offer anything other than the bare minimum in terms of opinion or insight. The team has become more withdrawn under his watch; less public property and are playing with the requisite element of hate. This summer has been about winning the kind of epic, heart-wrenching games which used to sink them in other seasons.

Unyielding toughness

They have performed with the unyielding toughness of All-Ireland champions. But don’t think they have forgotten the whispers and slights and doubts. And don’t imagine that they wouldn’t be quick to resurface either: that if Clare had toppled Galway in that gladiatorial series, that the revisionism wouldn’t have started . . . they had avoided Kilkenny in 2017; that ah, they won one but Galway, you know, they can never follow it up, the brittleness, will they have to wait as long . . .

When Galway last defended an All-Ireland title, the entire championship was drenched in bitterness over the suspension of Tony Keady.

Afterwards, Brendan Lynskey caught the mood of the county when he said: “I don’t think we’re meant to win three in a row. The GAA hierarchy didn’t want us to win three in a row . . .it wasn’t Tony Keady that was on trial. It was Galway that was on trial.”

They still hear slights, still feel a lack of respect and still sense the doubters out there

It doesn’t matter whether this was true or not; it was the truth of how that Galway team – and the majority within the county – felt at that time; persecuted and outside the realm.

Keady’s tragically early death last year – and the evocative appearance of his wife and young family on Galway’s field of victory last September, standing alongside Canning – seemed to bring those 29 years full circle.

Now Galway are one match away from emulating the 1988 crowd. It is a shame, in a way, that for the second successive year, they are facing a county whose fortunes have much reflected their own.

The regrets and disappointments of Limerick hurling have been quieter than Galway’s but the maroon supporters will recognise the huge surge of anticipation and desire – The Waiting – among the Limerick sections of the stadium on Sunday. They will be the neutrals’ favourites; for once, Galway must play the role of the oppressors; they have something to defend rather than chase.

No wonder, then, that they still hear slights, still feel a lack of respect and still sense the doubters out there. For years, Galway hurlers have been prodded and questioned and castigated for their failures.

This team has responded by hurling in a mood of sustained fury.

You wanted to see the rage within Galway?

This is it.

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