Seán Moran: Joe Canning for Hurler of the Year anyone?
Would Galway have won the All-Ireland without the Portumna dynamo?
Joe Canning celebrates Galway’s triumph and his long-awaited senior All-Ireland medal at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
One player more than any other symbolises the quest that ended for Galway on Sunday. Joe Canning’s arrival as a senior inter-county player – never mind his actual performances – was the subject of intense speculation.
Having played a significant role in Portumna’s first club All-Ireland success as a 17-year-old all of 11 seasons ago, there was effectively a countdown to when he’d make himself available for the county.
From the 2-12 he scored against Cork on only the second appearance of his senior championship career, he has been in the spotlight. In an interview this year he regretted the explosive arrival that had “set standards different to anybody else”.
It was fair comment. When – as was the norm for a long time – things ended disappointingly for Galway, attention focused on what Canning had done to stave off this state of affairs. Yes, there was swooning when he shot the lights out along the way but somehow what should have been a collective failure always seemed to end up as his disproportionate personal responsibility.
It certainly feels as if these bespoke standards are operating in the conversations about the Hurler of the Year. RTÉ’s Sunday Game panel made a unanimous and largely undeliberated decision to award the accolade to Gearóid McInerney.
It was stated that Galway had lacked a defensive spine up until now and that McInerney and Daithí Burke had supplied it. All true.
But Galway had lacked a few things when it came to winning All-Irelands – primarily consistent performance levels with the Jekyll and Hyde first and second half displays in 2012 and 2015 the most obvious exhibits.
The fall-off in these displays had been personalised in Canning’s fortunes and the conclusion drawn that he needed, at its politest, to do more when the match was there to be won. Instead of putting Galway on the road to success he had to take them there.
It would be different in 2017 because the team now had a full-spectrum attack in which he would play an influential role but which he would not personally constitute.
McInerney had a terrific year and the point here isn’t in any way to denigrate that and in the aftermath of Tony Keady’s untimely passing it has been hauntingly resonant to see someone who is literally a child of the iconic Finnerty-Keady-McInerney half-back line perform so magnificently for Galway in the bridging of the generations.
I would argue however that no-one did more than Canning to make this happen and this was done despite injury sniping at him from the weekend of the Leinster final. Without retrospection there’s a good argument that the disappointment, the criticism, fair and not fair, and the constant scrutiny of a young fella growing up created a crucible in which the performances of 2017 were forged.
In the watershed match of the championship, the semi-final against champions Tipperary, both he and McInerney, who was chosen as the Sunday Game Man of the Match, had similar trajectories: disappointing first three quarters of an hour, followed by lift-off.
When the match was in the melting pot, though Canning supplied all of Galway’s closing seven points, including the score of the year, hemmed in on the Cusack sideline with barely the time or space to take Johnny Coen’s pass and hurl the ball over the bar from around 50 metres and push Galway ahead as the allocated four minutes of injury-time elapsed.
In the final against Waterford he set the tone within 20 seconds – so important in an All-Ireland final – riding out ferocious physical challenges to clear space for a shot and opening score.
Most of all, on a day when the ghosts of the past posed a potential threat to Galway’s present he delivered a flawless performance from the placed ball. In a match which saw his team hit a few speed bumps imagine the reassurance of all those points flying over.
Furthermore when the contest entered the final straight he was there – who knows, mindful of how previous finals had passed him by when reaching the sticking point – available for ball and making things happen.
There were only two Galway wides in the second half and both were good chances created by Canning: a virtuoso turn and strike that switched play from the left wing to the right to pick out Jason Flynn and a catch and swift hand-pass to Conor Cooney for the second.
He hasn’t carried Galway this year. Had the team needed that, they wouldn’t be champions now, but he has led, orchestrated and driven his county to an All-Ireland.
There’s a great picture of him on page 29 of the All-Ireland final programme. There may be those who think that when Joe Canning does things like hit that winning point in the semi-final, it’s a matter of synapses pulsing or RoboCop sensors locking on a target.
In the picture though, he’s watching the ball soaring over the bar and caught in that realisation, a huge, delighted beam has broken out on his face, visible behind the faceguard.
The image of everything working out in the end.