There exists, in the person of Iarla Tannian, all that is good and all that is maddening about Galway hurling. He is a giant of a man but also essentially a shy man. He has the hands, the build and the brain for inter-county hurling but still sometimes looks like he's just settling into it, even at the age of 31. To look at him is to see that it is in him; to watch him is to wonder how to get it out of him.
When he was in his early 20s, Conor Hayes asked him to come and help strengthen a panel that was already good enough to go to two All-Ireland finals in five seasons. He asked him politely, then he asked him again.
“We beat a path to his door in 2005 and 2006,” Hayes said a few years ago. “He didn’t come in with us. He was going to America. I wouldn’t say he didn’t want it badly enough, but he was sure in his mind what he wanted to do and going to America was that certainty.”
Tannian had been a strapping minor back in 2002, part of a Galway team that was unlucky to lose by a point to Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final. Thing was, by the end of 2006, four of that Kilkenny team had played in and won an All-Ireland final. When Tannian was in America, John Tennyson, Cha Fitzpatrick, Richie Power and Willie O’Dwyer were starting Kilkenny along the road to a four-in-a-row. Different strokes.
"Yeah, people were always trying to get him in," says Alan Kerins. "But he didn't want to. I didn't know him that well at the time but I got to know him when he did come in. He was this really shy, quiet lad. He wouldn't say boo to you. And yet, the fact that he went to America when everybody was onto him to go hurling just goes to show that he was his own man."
And yet, once he came in, he stayed in. Ever since Ger Loughnane told him he was a Galway hurler in the winter of 2006, Tannian has never been off the panel. Through three different management regimes, through countless false dawns, through dozens upon dozens of new faces that have flashed through the dressing room over the past decade, Tannian has endured.
Of the team that torched Cork in the quarter-final, only Colm Callanan and David Collins remain from Tannian's championship debut against Laois in 2007. In all the different Galway sides through those years, a place has always been reserved for Tannian somewhere along the way.
He has been named in championship teams for Galway at 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14 and 15. That he is an obvious talent is clear. That there has been no particular consensus as to how to get the best out of him or what version of him will show up on a given day, equally so. And what could be more Galway than that?
John McIntyre managed him for three years between 2009 and 2011 and has watched him as as sports editor of the Connacht Tribune either side of that spell. There were times when he looked at Tannian and all but shouted 'Eureka'. Others when he looked and wondered what he'd been thinking at all, at all.
“We played him at full-forward in a league game against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park – I think it was in 2011 – and he came away with 2-2,” says McIntyre. “And you’re going home that evening on the bus and kind of going: ‘well that’s one less position that we have to worry about anyway’. But it’s never that simple with Galway. Consistency is an issue both individually and in a team context.
“When you see him on the training ground, you’re looking at this man and you’re looking at his size and his presence and saying, ‘he has to be somewhere’. But of course, that somewhere can depend on who’s available for elsewhere and the other talent you have. All of that comes into the equation. Iarla would be the type who will play where you’d put him. He wouldn’t be the type who’d come up to you and say, ‘Jesus Mac, I don’t like playing there, I have to be moved.’ He’ll just go about it, he’ll do what’s required.”
Loughnane had him at wing-forward initially. Tannian was there to get his hand in the air for puck-outs and to throw his not inconsiderable weight around. He had a reasonable first season too, ending in defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final. He was to be seen in the second half of that game rolling on the ground in a pucking match off the ball with Tommy Walsh, which did his future prospects with Loughnane no harm at all.
He played the whole of the 2008 league at full-forward before being switched back out when
made a surprise return ahead of the championship. That year ended with him doing his cruciate, however, and meant that 2009 was effectively a write-off. By then, McIntyre had taken over and though he had to wait a while to get Tannian fit and firing, he was instinctively drawn to his personality.
“Iarla is a laid-back type of character,” says McIntyre. “You would never hear Iarla Tannian making a dressing-room speech. You would never hear him shouting and roaring on the field. He goes about his business like a gentle giant. He wouldn’t be a strong, overbearing presence in a dressing room.
“You’d be talking to him on a one-to-one basis and you’d be wondering what he’s thinking. He wouldn’t engage that much with you. He’d listen, he’d take in the message and he’d go about his business. In my time, he was a very popular member of the dressing room. You kind of got the impression from him that he knew more than he was prepared to let on. He would kind of disarm you with a sort of a quirky smile.
“It was hard to figure him out. From a mentor-player point of view, you’d never have a long conversation with him where you’d be talking back and forth about the merits of this course of action or that one. Iarla would be relatively unresponsive to that kind of thing, bar a nod once in a while or something like that. But he always applied himself diligently and he always prepared himself to a high standard . . .”
And yet with supporters, Tannian has probably been the subject of more eye-rolling than any Galway player of recent times. Partly this is down to his longevity – they can’t get annoyed at you if you’re not there, after all. But as year fell upon year with fresh disappointment piling up all the while, Tannian was never able to mark out a patch for himself and own it.
He was a streaky forward, no stranger to the occasional stellar league followed by a watery championship. The cruciate injury took a long time to get over and he had a badly broken thumb as well to contend with. In that spring of 2011 under McIntyre, his 2-2 against Kilkenny was supplemented by 2-0 against Dublin and 0-6 from play against Offaly. But the summer came and went without him – or Galway – leaving a mark on it.
It was only when
moved him to midfield the following year that he seemed to find his feet. Though he played a couple of games in the forwards during the league, his days there were numbered. But like McIntyre before him, Cunningham knew he had to have him somewhere in the 15. Tannian would be candid about what brought about the switch.
“The main reason was that I wasn’t performing very well in the forwards,” he said at the launch of the 2013 Allianz League.
“There were some games there where I was taken off after 18 minutes. The management said it’s worth a try and luckily enough it worked out. I got a new lease of life out in midfield. The role suited me better. I would have improved on certain things myself. The fitness levels would have been higher than in other years.”
He was an All Star in 2012, unlucky not to make the shortlist for Hurler of the Year. The Sunday Game panel made him Man of the Match in the drawn All-Ireland final, after which no less an opponent than Richie Hogan got switched back to the forwards for the replay. Here, finally, was what looked like his calling.
And yet, and yet. By the middle of the following summer, he'd been dislodged again. Dublin swamped Galway in the Leinster final and Tannian bore his share of the brunt, dropping to the bench.
When he came on in a qualifier against Clare, the pace and precision of Colm Galvin and Conor Ryan reduced him to a turnstile. He would turn 30 the following April. The future looked dim.
But still, here he is. Two years on, he’s the roundest of the square pegs that Galway have tried at centre-back. He was immense against Dublin this summer, skated on thin enough ice against Kilkenny, was tidy and efficient against Cork.
If the game is in the air and there is patrolling of the skies to be done, then he is happy and Galway are happy.
There’s less confidence about what might happen if, say, Bonner Maher gets a run on him tomorrow.
If his career has taught us anything though, it’s that Tannian will likely find a way to survive. He always has.