Micheál Donoghue leads tributes to once-in-a-generation talent Joe Canning

Galway’s supremely gifted talisman calls a halt to his intercounty career at the age of 32

Joe Canning: announced his retirement from the intercounty game days after Galway’s defeat to Waterford in the All-Ireland qualifier at  Semple Stadium. It was his 14th season with the county’s seniors. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Joe Canning: announced his retirement from the intercounty game days after Galway’s defeat to Waterford in the All-Ireland qualifier at Semple Stadium. It was his 14th season with the county’s seniors. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

The 14th season of his career ended in defeat – the 13th to do so. Although Joe Canning had long maintained that a hurling All-Ireland wouldn’t define him – either by its attainment or in its absence – it’s fair to say the game at large was happy in 2017 when he and Galway took Liam MacCarthy across the Shannon for the first time in 29 years.

On Monday he was at a press call in his role as a Bord Gáis Energy #HurlingToTheCore ambassador, and announced his retirement from the intercounty game at the age of 32.

The mood was low he said because of the defeat by Waterford, and there was no distance to ease the blow of a troubling afternoon, which saw him play the second half on painkillers with a broken wrist.

Despite this he orchestrated what was nearly a comeback from a 16-point deficit and also passed Henry Shefflin as the championship’s top all-time scorer.

“To be honest,” he said, “we weren’t expecting to lose – you never are if you’re a competitive sportsperson. There’s always hope. That’s not overconfidence; you have to have that mentality if you’re playing competitive sport. It’s always difficult when you lose and go out of the championship.”

Micheál Donoghue managed the team to the long-awaited All-Ireland in 2017 when Joe Canning became Hurler of the Year.

“What he’s put into it,” says Donoghue, “what he’s represented in the game – not alone for Galway but nationally – makes him a once-in-a-generation player, a special talent with the ability to create moments out of nothing. He was such a talisman for our county.”

In particular he recalls the sensational winning point in the last seconds of the semi-final against Tipperary, from out on the Cusack Stand sideline.

“He set the standard in everything he did. On the big days, he was able to create big moments. Look at 2017 when he won the All-Ireland – probably one of the most iconic points in hurling to win the semi-final.

“As a person he deserves to remembered in equal measure. He’s a class act but with humility. Nothing was ever a problem for him, particularly in what he did for young supporters around the country. He always gave his time without question.”

A prodigious underage career – he just came up short of a third successive minor All-Ireland in 2006 and added an under-21 in 2007 – set the stage for senior virtuosity, announced in his rookie season with 2-12 (1-5 from play) in a qualifier defeat against Cork in 2008.

His current successor as Hurler of the Year, Gearóid Hegarty, remembers watching it.

“It was 13 years ago. What was I? I was 13. I grew up as a young fella watching Joe. I watched the game against Waterford the other day and what a hurler!

“I watched the 2017 All-Ireland final and remember watching a bit of the post-game and just to see the joy in the ground that day for the supporters of Galway because they’re a massive hurling county and for Joe to get his All-Ireland medal.”

It was quite an entrance but also a high threshold for how his career would be judged.

Sporting celebrity

“There was always a pressure to perform on the pitch. There was always an expectation to be what people perceived me to be, which is difficult to deal with at times. Hopefully that pressure is gone now.”

And with it, the access-all-areas public property that a sporting celebrity becomes?

“Yeah, yeah, at times I kind of struggled with it in the public, to be honest. A lot of places you go, you’re known and you can’t just be a normal person if you know what I mean. Sometimes I just felt uncomfortable around people.

“Because it’s weird – at times you feel you have to be this perfect person to other people and smile and be okay with people. But you know, we all have shitty days too, that you can’t be nice to everybody, you know what I mean?

“People have things going on in their life. I always felt, people often said to me, ‘it would be great to be Joe Canning’ and I’m like, ‘no, live my life for a week or two and you’d love to get back to your own life again’. It’s not great at times. At other times it’s fine. But yeah.”

His original protestation that an All-Ireland wouldn’t define him had the air of defensiveness but he articulates the broader point.

“Funny enough, I’d always said that an All-Ireland wouldn’t define me whether I won it or lost it. There’s a lot of better hurlers than me that never won an All-Ireland and just because I was lucky enough to be on a team with Galway that won it in ’17 doesn’t make me a better – or a lesser – player than anybody else.

“There are people with All-Ireland medals in their pocket that never pucked a ball in Croke Park so does that make them a better player than Ollie, my brother, or Ken McGrath and John Mullane and others who haven’t won one? It doesn’t, you know.”

For the future he says that hurling has never obsessed him so he doesn’t expect to be at a loose end although he will continue to play for Portumna. One thing he doesn’t envisage is treading the path of punditry.

“I just hope I don’t turn into a Twitter freak or something like that – giving expert analysis on stuff that seems to happen after you retire. That’s one thing I won’t be doing.”

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