Ciarán Murphy: Goodbye Joe Canning, you made the people happy

Galway great’s exceptional exploits leave hurling fans with special memories

Joe Canning looks on as his late point  from the Cusack Park sideline seals victory for Galway over Tipperary in the memorable  2017All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Joe Canning looks on as his late point from the Cusack Park sideline seals victory for Galway over Tipperary in the memorable 2017All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

As the streamers flew down from the top of the Hogan Stand, Joe Canning found himself sharing his moment of total hurling vindication with a young girl who had just lost her dad.

Tony Keady died three-and-a-half weeks before the 2017 All-Ireland final, and as his family were welcomed on to the pitch at the final whistle by Michéal Donoghue, his only daughter Shannon was momentarily left alone and a little overwhelmed.

According to Keady’s biography, “she was looking around at everything, engulfed by the noise and the drama, and then Joe Canning gave her a hug. They started talking. The presentation of the cup was underway in the stand in front of them and Shannon was looking up and time passed, and she suddenly realised that Joe Canning was still standing by her side”.

Canning stood beside her for five minutes. He was there beside her when Hill 16 started chanting her father’s name. Of all the ways that Canning imagined spending his first five minutes as an All-Ireland champion, he would have done well to have come up with that scenario, but it was a beautiful, noble thing to do.

That was the day Joe got the All-Ireland medal he ‘deserved’, as if that’s a metric that exists in the world. He hit the last five scores of the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final win against Tipperary. No other Galway player scored for the last 23 minutes of the game. He might have deserved an All-Ireland medal, but nevertheless he went out and took it.

By then we could say that he had exceeded even the wildest expectations put on him as a kid – the sort of expectation that realistically only David Clifford could empathise with.

He won two All-Ireland minor medals, and lost a third final in his last year in the grade. He was man of the match in an All-Ireland club final – as a 17-year-old. He was a sensation.

Conor Hayes considered calling him into the Galway panel after that club final, and his successor Ger Loughnane did likewise. Joe resisted. He wanted to play minor and U-21 for as long as he could. The pressure became a little unseemly.

By the time he did make his senior championship debut, still a teenager, it seemed woefully overdue. What followed – the 2-12 against Cork and Diarmuid O’Sullivan that is seared onto people’s memory, the Young Hurler of the Year award, the All Star – was almost other-worldly. Galway were a rabble, but they had Joe (even by then the surname was superfluous).

Galvanising effect

Through the years Galway wandered. They got to the 2012 All-Ireland hurling final, and Canning hit a goal in the opening minutes so good that the stadium nearly fell in on itself. That was telling, in its own way. To beat Kilkenny that day, it was felt Galway would need divine intervention – and that’s exactly what they got in that moment.

That old line about a goal by DJ counting for four points, such was its impact on his Kilkenny team-mates, was equally true of Joe. If you have a miracle-worker in your midst, and he starts cracking his knuckles over beside the loaves and the fishes, it tends to have quite a galvanising effect.

He walks away, having become the championship’s top-scorer of all time last Saturday. He leaves some extraordinary memories. The goal in the Leinster final of 2015, when he caught a ball over his head while turning, and then swivelled in one swift movement to lash it to the net, was an exploration of the outer reaches of what was possible on a hurling field.

The insouciant no-look hand-pass to David Burke for a score against Cork in a qualifier in Limerick in 2011 was beautiful self-expression. The 4-7 against Clare in an under-21 semi-final that Galway ended up losing. 1-16 in another losing effort in a Fitzgibbon Cup final.

The sideline cuts! 27 in the championship, 19 ahead of his nearest competitor, each of them a study in concentration and artistry.

The day in the 2014 Leinster championship when he exchanged injury-time, under-pressure, from-the-sideline points with Henry Shefflin to force a draw, in a one-minute spell of hurling freighted with about as much subtle subtext as a Vin Diesel movie.

But the mind returns again and again to that winning point against Tipperary in 2017. The blind panic Johnny Coen must have felt as he gathered the ball on the Cusack Stand, with the clock almost dead. He turns, as if he’s heard a shout.

And there stands Joe, calmly beseeching him to give him the ball, his hand open to receive the pass, almost in supplication. The shot is away. The place goes wild. James Crombie’s magnificent photo, reproduced here, as Joe wheels away. He can’t help stealing a long glance at the ball as it goes over, the Cusack Stand in paroxysms behind him. Who couldn’t love this game? Who couldn’t love this player?

So goodbye, Joe – you made the people happy.

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