Canning reflects on Galway’s year of dropping short

Coming so close to retaining title made this year’s final defeat probably the hardest

Galway’s Joe Canning in action during last month’s All-Ireland hurling final defeat to Limerick at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Galway’s Joe Canning in action during last month’s All-Ireland hurling final defeat to Limerick at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Prelude

Last year was the big breakthrough for Galway hurling, a first All-Ireland title in 29 years. Joe Canning was central to the achievement. In his 10th year with the Galway seniors he was the concert master and first violin rather than a one-man band but the capture of the MacCarthy Cup feature many incomparable solo moments.

With a weird kind of symmetry, he had been born just weeks after that previous All-Ireland in 1988. In more recent times a friend in Galway had always held to the faith that one day, the county would again win the All-Ireland and that Canning would be the principal influence. So it came to pass.

Canning said in an interview earlier this year that he had gone to bed relatively early amidst all of the celebrations on the night of the 2017 All-Ireland so was it in effect an anti-climax?

“A little bit,” he says tentatively, “but that’s in a county winning just a fifth All-Ireland and a first since 1988 when emotions are running high. There were a couple of thousand people there. Ask anybody, who do they want to celebrate with when they win something and it’s the people that you’ve been through the good and the bad times with and that’s family and your team-mates and everyone involved with Galway hurling.

“Because there were so many people there it was just very hard to celebrate with those people alone. We got that chance at a later stage but on the night it was a bit crazy.”

Still the challenge grew

There followed an equally novel experience: having to defend the title and after a sluggish league gave way to the newly structured provincial round-robins, Galway began to find form and become accepted as likely back-to-back champions.

As well as the confidence that winning an All-Ireland gives to a team, mightn’t there be a case that a county, having broken a sound barrier of sorts, is able to cruise at a higher speed and that the MacCarthy Cup can be viewed as another competition to win rather than some form of Holy Grail?

He isn’t buying that.

“Not from a player’s point of view. Media can portray a different vision than what players see. Ask any sports person and growing up, all they want to do is win All-Irelands and play on All-Ireland final day. When I was a kid, out at home on the farm I was thinking I was Joe Cooney, Mikey Sheehy from Kerry playing football. That’s all I wanted to do and it’s still the same.”

Still digging, as the hole deepens: surely the mystique of the All-Ireland dims a little once you’ve won it?

“No. It’s still the big one to win. At the end of the day people remember the winners.”

He mightn’t have been an All-Ireland winner this year but he was even more influential, as he steadied a Galway side wavering at times this summer and single-handedly almost rescued the final. Again nominated for the Hurler of the Year award he won 12 months ago, Canning is a shoo-in for another All Star.

Ghost in the machine

If 2017 had an irritating postscript, it was that Galway hadn’t played Kilkenny at any stage of the season. There weren’t many of the opinion that they would have lost to their long-term tormentors (no wins in the previous six meetings) but you’d never be quite sure with Kilkenny.

The apprehension was put to bed and tucked in tight during this summer. Three matches between them and Galway remained unbeaten, starting with the comfortable win in Salthill in May.

“When a county the stature of Kilkenny come to your home ground: it was a huge win for us psychologically because we obviously don’t have a great record against them down the years. Not many counties do!”

Joe Canning at the recent launch the official PwC All-Star Fan Engagement app. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Joe Canning at the recent launch the official PwC All-Star Fan Engagement app. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Long and drawn-out

Kilkenny might have had their say in one respect, though. An already unprecedentedly long season – five provincial rounds – was extended by one when Galway blew a lead late in the Leinster final and had to replay against Brian Cody’s team in Thurles.

One match later and the same thing happened with the added imposition of extra time in the All-Ireland semi-final with Clare. Again, the replay was narrowly won but at what cost?

By the final, Galway were widely perceived as flagging. Fatigue, injuries and attrition were wearing down the team. Canning feels that some of this is based on post-hoc rationalisation but accepts that the unscheduled, expanding fixture list had an impact.

“It did for sure, more so mentally although physically we were getting knocks and bruises that we didn’t have last year. A few guys were carrying them and being patched up to get through games. That was all from the amount of matches we played.

“Of course it was a new format and we weren’t used to it, playing nine matches in one season to get to an All-Ireland final is unheard of. I suppose the semi-final replay against Clare a week later in hindsight probably did affect us but that’s not an excuse either. If we won the All-Ireland the talk would be that those games had made us.

“You’re not going into an All-Ireland final thinking, ‘Jeez – we’re after playing an amount of matches; we’re definitely going to be tired’. That’s not the mentality of anyone going into an All-Ireland.

“When you’re in that bubble and the training is going well – we were winning matches. We’ve only lost one out of the last 13 or 14 championship matches but people wonder were you tired – we were winning matches.”

There was widespread surprise when in a waspish interview after beating Clare, Canning claimed that Galway had been disrespected, a strange allegation about a team widely tipped to win the All-Ireland all summer.

Had there maybe been an attempt to circle the wagons and create a siege mentality as some sort of corrective to the feeling that the champions were beginning to tread water?

“It wasn’t that at all. When you look back at the drawn semi-final we had five All Stars on the bench in extra time and no matter what team you have, you’ll miss those players. To be a goal down in extra time and to come back and draw the match and even have a chance to win it – I don’t think we got enough credit for the use of our panel.”

Final destination

He’s on the record as saying that he mishit the last-minute free to draw the All-Ireland final, however harsh that would have been on a Limerick side that deserved to lead by eight points going into injury time.

“I thought myself that I should have got it. You wouldn’t go back and take a free like that if you weren’t confident that you’d do it. That ate away at me as well.

“Still thinking about it every day. It’s probably worse than the others – played in four All-Irelands and lost three of them. I think it was more the fact that we didn’t perform, didn’t give a good account of ourselves. In other years we played for half or a quarter of the match but this time we only really played for 10 or 15 minutes.”

He dismisses enquiries about his fitness after taking a couple of knocks by pointing out as he has done in the past, that a player is rarely 100 per cent at any one time. Was that an issue in the final?

“No, no. Adrenalin is a huge thing. Would I like to have been a bit better? Yeah, I’d like to have been able to train a bit more but it was fine; you get on with it. I remember back in 2015, there were seven matches and I had to get six injections in my hand that year.”

Joe Canning turns 30 next month and is trying not to think about it.

“I was chatting to one of the boys on the panel who had just turned 30 and he said that he was feeling about 26. I’m the same – I don’t know if I’m lying to myself.”

Life goes on. His club Portumna, with whom he has four All-Irelands, teeter on the brink of elimination from the county championship but he busies himself with his Asian food franchise Camille, based in of all places, Limerick, and this week the family’s hurley making business is exhibiting at the Ploughing Championships in storm-tossed Screggan.

Well known for his association with Unicef, he has no field trip scheduled this year but is very involved in his role as a goodwill ambassador for the agency.

He won his first club All-Ireland at the age of 17, before he had even sat his Leaving Cert: it’s a long time hurling.

“It is but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s been enjoyable and not everyone gets to do it. There’s a lot of people who’d love to be able to do it sitting on bar stools giving their opinion but they can’t do it!”

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