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Peep went the All-Ireland whistle, and down on his knees went Joe Canning

David Burke was probably man of the match, but the Galway forward was the story

Joe Canning: the scream he sent up into the Cusack stand contained all the good and all the bad from 10 seasons’ toil. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sights and sounds and scenes. The end of an All-Ireland final is often like this. Something happens, usually a forlorn miss by the chasing team or a whipped clearance by the one in the lead. And it changes the mood of the place, dousing the last flicker flame of doubt in the minds of the winning supporters. This is when they know.

The clock was drip-dropping its way past the 74th minute when Austin Gleeson fought for a ball over by the Cusack stand sideline near the Galway 45. The young Waterford prince had been running in treacle all day, not being able to do right for doing wrong. After all the talk over whether he’d miss the final through suspension it turned out he was barely present for it anyway. And when this line ball went against him he swung a boot at the sliotar in temper and ate a few more seconds of clock for Galway.

Surely it couldn’t be so perfect. Surely Galway’s wait for an All-Ireland couldn’t end with Joe Canning having the final word on it

That’s when they knew. That’s when the stands started to rise and roof began to shuck and shake around the old place. And when they saw who was heading over to take it the noise even found a second wind. Surely it couldn’t be so perfect. Surely Galway’s wait for an All-Ireland couldn’t end with Joe Canning having the final word on it.

But kismet is as kismet does. Canning ambled over, presumably unable to believe his luck. Galway had a three-point cushion, and you could tell by the body language of Fergal Horgan, the referee, that whatever Canning did here it was going to be the last act of the afternoon. Up in the air went the ball, out widespread went the ref’s hands, peep-peep-peeeeep went the whistle.

And down on his knees went Canning.

Leading scorer

The scream he sent up into the Cusack stand contained all the good and all the bad from 10 seasons’ toil. Galway have played in four All-Ireland finals since he joined the senior panel, including a replay in 2012. He has been their leading scorer in them all. When they were here in 2005, for another losing afternoon, he was the top scorer in the minor final. His father, Seán, had a heart attack in the stands that day. The scenes here were very different.

It’s just great for Mam and Dad. They’re the people who have put up with the crankiness down through the years 

“You really want to find the people who are close to you,” Canning told RTÉ Radio on the pitch afterwards, as the celebrations launched around him. “They’re the people who have put up with the crankiness down through the years. It’s just great for Mam and Dad, really. I stayed away from them in the week coming up to the match. You just want them to enjoy the weekend, and being around me in the build-up would be a good job – just nerves and stuff like that.”

Canning wasn’t the best player on view, but he wasn’t peripheral, either. He scored the opening point of the game, after 23 seconds, bursting on to the ball around the Waterford 65 and brushing off a couple of tackles – fouls, actually – to swish a settler. And although he didn’t consume the game whole from there, like we’ve seen him do before, he did his bit.

That’s how it had to be, of course. All those years we watched him try to carry Galway to an All-Ireland, it was the only his own insistent brand of genius that made anyone imagine it was even possible. But here, when the day of days finally happened, it happened as it must: organically, piecemeal, the load spread wide and deep.

Canning finished the day with nine points from 10 shots. He laced together six frees to keep the scoreboard moving and popped a couple from play. His one moment of timeless beauty came just short of the half-hour, when Galway hadn’t scored for nearly 10 minutes and Waterford’s second goal had levelled the game.

Not how but how many

By that stage it didn’t matter that Waterford didn’t deserve to be neck and neck: it only mattered that they were. They were like a golfer who’d found himself in a share of the lead by holing out from the fairway. The game ain’t about how, it’s about how many. And right there and then they had the same how many as Galway, even though Galway had done more to make it so.

Canning put an end to it by ambling out for a sideline cut under the Cusack stand. He wasn’t a million miles from where he would end the game just over an hour later: he had to pull out the 45 flag to make room for his swing. The strike was poetry, splitting the posts at the Canal End in a perfect loop.

Canning stood down on the pitch with Tony Keady’s daughter, Shannon, to one side and Micheál Donoghue to the other

David Burke was probably man of the match, and the Galway defence as a unit were probably what won it. But Canning was the story, little though he’d like to be thought of as such.

“To me it doesn’t matter too much,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be seen any differently by people who know me. Maybe people who don’t know me, maybe an All-Ireland medal is something for them to talk about. But it’s great to have it. I have every medal at intercounty level that it’s possible to have. So it’s nice to finish off the collection.”

Sights and sounds and scenes. The photographers tailed his every turn afterwards. They found Joe Connolly in the crowd and got him down for a selfie, Liam MacCarthy with a Joe on each side. And as the rest of the Galway players lined the steps for David Burke’s speech, Canning stood down on the pitch with Tony Keady’s daughter, Shannon, to one side and Micheál Donoghue to the other.

A man apart. Finally, a man fulfilled.