Talismanic Joe Canning keeps eyes on bigger picture
Galway’s maturing star still chasing All-Ireland success but refuses to be defined by it
Galway’s Joe Canning: ‘It is hard to think of any GAA player who is so central to the conversation and ambitions of his team and county.’ Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
So the years slide by into decades and still Galway wait on. Thirty years will have vanished this September since the maroon hurlers gate-crashed the possibilities of the game by winning the first of their back-to-back All-Irelands in 1987 and 1988. Within those three decades, a multitude of stylists and teenage crack-shots, days of semi-final glories and numbing September disappointments have come and gone.
The hurling volcanoes across the county were still smouldering when Joe Canning was born in mid-October 1988. Portumna wasn’t even part of the Galway hurling map then and you’d have been hard-pressed to guess that the guy who would come to embody the Galway game would grow up there, in Clanricarde country, just beyond Tipperary’s grasp. But that’s been Canning’s destiny and it is hard to think of any GAA player, with the possible exception of Donegal’s Michael Murphy, who is so central to the conversation and ambitions of his team and county.
It is the only conversation that Canning has known since his incandescent debut season a decade ago.
“I was 19 when I set out with Galway . . . what am I now?” he says on a warm afternoon on the outskirts of Galway city, temporarily losing track of time himself. “Twenty-eight. I was hoping to win nine All-Irelands.
“Obviously it’s probably not going to happen like that – unless you are from Kilkenny,” he laughs. “But that’s how I was thinking. You have that competitiveness in you each year. And if we did win one, then I think I’d want to win another.”
Canning gets asked about winning an All-Ireland with Galway in the same way the pope fields inquiries about the afterlife. He has answered the question a thousand times and even though he can give you any variation on the theme, the essential truth is the same. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know when. Or how. Or if. Or why it hasn’t happened. He doesn’t have a clue.
He is trying to feel and play his way through whatever time he gets in maroon the same as everyone else. Over the years, he has come to accept that the swing of emotions will always be extreme when it comes to how his game is perceived. He is either out-of-this-world or, on those occasional days when Galway implode, the chief culprit. Ordinariness is not a place he has ever been permitted to dwell.
The face is no longer cherubic but otherwise he has changed little in his decade as a Galway hurler, 10 years in which he has had to do his growing up in public. He is personable and if there is a national school in the county at which he hasn’t made a sports day appearance, it’s a rare one. His photograph, smiling beside little Rob or Sarah, hangs in many homes. From the beginning, he has been one of the most marketable players in Gaelic games. So being known is all he has known.
“I don’t think I would change any of it,” he says of his sporting life. “I think I have been very fortunate in what I have achieved so far. But I don’t think it is going to define me as a person either. It is funny how people view you. First and foremost, I am a person. It’s funny: people see you as a hurler. Like, I want people to define me as a person – who hurls. It does annoy me a little bit that sportspeople are defined in that way.
“I have won everything apart from the senior All-Ireland. Like, everything. If I retire, will that define me if it doesn’t happen? It probably will. But in my own head it won’t. And sport won’t define me as a person. It is what I do in my family and work life down the line. It won’t be looking back at 35 or 40 years of age thinking, Jesus, if we had only won that match, well life would be a lot better for me. Now, if I was getting paid to do this, maybe all of that would matter more. But I’m not. I enjoy this and it is a hobby but it’s not what I’m about 100 per cent.”
Does that sound like sacrilege? If so, then Canning can live with that. On the Friday morning before the league final, he drove to Salthill and had breakfast with a guy he knows called John Walsh. They met last summer when Walsh was bringing out a book called Headcase, about his experience of being diagnosed with a rare form of brain tumour when he was 23.
“Only 40 people in the world had this type of tumour and of those, he is the only one still alive. And he has 10 inoperable tumours in his back now. And John’s outlook on life . . . it’s phenomenal. He feels he is no better or worse off than anyone else. He is bringing out a new book and he was saying that nobody should be feeling sorry for him because he has 10 tumours or is on morphine every day or has three kids aged one, three and five. But when you put the worries of sport up against that, they are sometimes minuscule compared to issues that people have.”
Canning is saying this because he is being asked direct questions and is not in his nature to avoid giving his true opinion. Sometimes he reads and hears other players and managers after games almost apologising for defeats or taking refuge in rehearsed jargon rather than honest opinion. It saddens him.
“There is a fear. Things get blown out of proportion now, particularly with social media. And there is a thing now with GAA media and players not talking. And that’s not right either because we want to promote our games and get kids playing them. And if you don’t have intercounty players talking, then what do you have? Players aren’t going to be controversial for the sake of it but they are afraid to express their personality now.
“I think it has to work both ways too. Headlines are the killer, I think. It is rarely what is written in the piece. Nine times out of 10, I find that the headline is totally different to what is contained in the piece. A few words taken out of context can change everything. So it would be good to get everyone back on side.”
It’s not as if he made a calculated decision to speak his mind. It’s just that to do otherwise would seem false and pointless to him. From the beginning, he was interested in sportspeople who had a bright independent streak. He always liked the fearlessness with which Paul Galvin pursued his tangential interests in fashion and music and like the rest of the world, he continues to enjoy the way Ronan O’Gara just blurts it out, come what may.
For the most part, Canning has walked a charmed path: his extravagant talents lauded from all quarters and a living folk hero for a generation of Galway kids. Still, he hears the bitching too. He remembers a club semi-final played in Athenry – but not against Athenry – a few autumns ago. He had a late free to draw the game and from the terraces came a prolonged and embittered volley of abuse. “Thank God it went over,” he laughs before recalling a similar experience in Limerick during the league semi-final just gone.
“And you’d wonder what goes through their heads or what good they get out of it. Is it just to say down in the pub later on, ah yeah, I let your man have it and he missed the free or whatever? You take it with a pinch of salt. You laugh about it afterwards.”
When he heads out in the city for a night, there is no point in him denying that he is a well-known face. And the vast majority of people either leave him to it or are out-of-their-way friendly. But there is the odd time when someone clocks him and just takes exception to him being there.
“The odd smart comment but you would look the other way. If you did anything, it is your problem. He is probably just saying whatever so he can have a laugh with his buddies in two minutes’ time. You do get that kind of thing but not really a guy coming straight up to you. You would hear it said loud enough so you would hear it and then you give the reaction. Or don’t. I wouldn’t have any time for people who maybe in their head think that I think I am better than them. That just doesn’t sit with me. Because I am just the same as anyone else. It really annoys me, that: ah, look at yer man over there or whatever. And you are kind of going, Jesus, relax man, I’m the same as you.”
He is smart enough to know that this gift and this time are transitory. Before Canning was even born, his uncle Frankie was the hurling sensation of south Galway: a Gurteeny natural who lit out for London, played and beat Galway to contest the All-Ireland semi-final of 1973 with the Exiles and returned to wear the maroon in 1981, just missing out on that imperishable September of 1980, when Galway won and Joe Connolly imitated the pope and the world was young.
Canning knows that, to some people, he is still Frankie nephew. They descend on Frankie’s pub in Gurteeny each St Stephen’s Day: the clan. Canning has a brood of 16 nephews and nieces. He is where he has always been in the pecking order of the family: just one of the troops. A good few of his friends from home don’t hurl at all and are not particularly interested in Canning’s latest wonder score or where best to play him. They yap about other stuff. That suits him.
Much as he loves hurling, he can’t live in it all the time. Last year, he opened a Thai restaurant, Camile, in Limerick and will open similar places in Galway and Sligo in the coming months. “I’m front of house more than in the kitchen,” he admits. But his business interests, including his role fronting a fitness campaign with Red Bull, take him into another world.
He spent most of the winter recuperating from a severely torn hamstring and used the time to travel to the Syrian border in December with Unicef, for whom he works as an ambassador. He saw the privations and heard a litany of bleak, terrifying stories and thought of his own nephews and nieces when he met kids shipping all kinds of adult responsibilities. “What struck me was that everyone loved where they came from. You know? Same as us. They wanted to get back there. There is an idea in the media that refugees just want to flee and go live wherever. They are just seeking somewhere safe until they go back and rebuild their country.”
So maybe for experiences such as that and for more personal reasons, he will not allow his existence to be defined by what does or does not happen in a maroon shirt. Two years ago, when Galway came tantalisingly close to solving their All-Ireland riddle, both of his parents were battling illness.
“Mam had breast cancer and Dad had prostrate and stuff. 2015 was tough for us, yeah. They are good now – they headed off there to Lanzarote for two weeks. But it’s sad to say that it took something like that happening to stop me from feeling the pressure of always wanting us – Galway – to win. 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. To see the smiles on their faces if we win. To know that you made them kind of proud. That is what it is all about.
“And some people hearing me say that will probably ask: does he want it enough? I am a competitor. I love the challenge and will give it my best. But if I retire and say that it was a failure or a success? It is just a chapter in my life.”
Somewhere Joe McDonagh is singing of Aughrim’s slopes and Shannon’s waves and the conversations about Canning and the comparisons and Galway’s need to win will begin in earnest once again. The great summer talk. And that is fine. Just understand they are your conversations, not his.
You ask him what his plans are for the evening: it is still fine in the west. He says he is driving straight to the coast to duck into the sea for 10 minutes – “it’s bloody freezing” he says, laughing at the lunacy of it. But its one of his favourite things: to submerge himself completely on the edge of Galway and let the cold water work on body and soul.
Then he will head home.