No ordinary Joe leading the charge

 

All-Ireland Under-21 HC Final/Dublin v Galway:With the latest Canning prodigy in the van, Galway have every right to be confident, writes Keith Duggan

After a chastening hurling year, it is down to the under-21 team to claim something of significance for Galway. The emergence of Dublin has become the popular story of this mezzanine-level competition and a win for the Metropolitans will be regarded as good for the game.

But in Galway this final has generated keen interest. It will be a further sign of the maturation of the fine underage teams guided by Mattie Murphy to three All-Ireland finals in a row and a chance to see Joe Canning continue his extraordinary career.

The Portumna man has become a nationally recognised figure without yet hurling a senior match for his county and has made the transition to the under-21 grade seamlessly. He was the dominant figure in this year's Fitzgibbon Cup, which his team Limerick IT won against NUIG. And in the brilliant semi-final win against Cork, Canning cut two points from the sideline on his way to 0-7, prompting Brian Tyres of TG4 to exclaim, "Dia linn is Mhuire."

Canning's incandescent displays for Portumna and the college and now the under-21s augur well for his debut season at senior level, and Murphy sees no reason his prolific form won't continue.

"Joe is a strong fella and probably as he gets older he will learn how to use that power," Murphy said. "He is deceptively fast; he can cover 10 or 15 yards as fast as anyone. His anticipation for the flight of the ball and the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time mark him out. Some guys have to work very hard to get on the ball and he seems to do it effortlessly. Only a few can do that. Joe Cooney was always in the right place at the right time. It's that vision that singles the great players out from the rest."

When Murphy coached Ollie Canning at minor level back in 1992, he was sometimes distracted by what Ollie's younger brother, who used to tag along, was doing with the sliotar.

"Even as a child he practised striking the ball off the ground. He could make it talk even at that time."

Everyone in Galway hurling was familiar with Canning's prodigious ability at primary and secondary school. And his selection, at the age of 15, to Murphy's county minor team was no surprise. Murphy had never been afraid to select players he believed ready - Kevin Broderick, Rory Gantley and Michael Healy had all received the same show of faith.

"With Joe, there wouldn't have been much choice other than to pick him," said Murphy. "The jump from under-16 to minor is not that big and he was well able for it."

In a classic All-Ireland minor final and replay against Kilkenny, Canning shone. Galway retained their title in 2005, and that November Canning hit 1-11 out of 3-21 in the county senior final win against Loughrea.

By the following March the club had qualified for the All-Ireland club showpiece and Canning struck 1-6 against Newtownshandrum.

It was as though he was ticking off the traditional roll of honours the way a prodigious student takes exams, and immediately there was speculation that he would be brought into the senior team under Conor Hayes.

That did not happen, and last September marked the first big setback of his career. In early September, Galway were beaten 2-18 to 2-6 by Tipperary as they chased three All-Ireland medals in a row. Canning was denied access to an exclusive club and was held scoreless from play by Pádraig Maher. The following month, he again failed to score in the open as Loughrea took the Galway title in a frenzied and rancorous match in which Canning missed a late, crucial free.

By then Galway hurling was in a state of high excitement at the arrival of Ger Loughnane. As the seniors began training in earnest, Joe Canning announced he wanted to stay underage for another year.

"Joe does not take defeat lightly," Murphy says. "He will be motivated and committed to the cause. He hates to lose. That's a great sign of a player. But you get knocks in life and I think hurling prepares you for the knocks you do get.

"To opt out of the senior team was not a decision he would have taken lightly because if there is one thing I know for sure about Joe it is that hurling is a huge part of his life. And he would have thought long and hard and took family advice on it.

"But I was a small bit surprised because the year before that he was contemplating going in under Conor Hayes. But it won't have any impact on his future career."

In the spring colleges' competition, Canning posted the kind of notices that must have had Loughnane sighing wistfully: 2-8 against UCD, 1-9 against Waterford IT, 1-8 against NUIG - virtuoso performances against high-quality defences.

After watching Canning deliver one of his speciality cuts into a strong wind and score a point, Babs Keating was moved to describe the strike as "something I have never seen before and I have been watching hurling since 1953."

An under-21 final is hardly a novel stage for Galway. But this team is the cream of the thrilling three years of minor hurling orchestrated by Mattie Murphy: only one of those who started the semi-final - Noel Kelly of Sarsfields - did not go through his hands. Like many Galway people, Murphy will be in the stands hoping to see that winning tradition continue.

"Galway had a poor year. You have to put it in context. We were 10 points behind Kilkenny. In championship all we beat were Laois and Antrim. In league, it was Laois, Antrim and Tipperary. At minor level, for the last five or six years we were either the top or the second-best team in the country. This year . . . we were fifth or sixth in the pecking order. This under-21 team is the result of three very good minor teams and they are not overnight successes. They expect to be knocking at the door.

"But Dublin have done great work as well. So it is not going to be easy but you would be thinking we have lads with the big-game experience to come through. And it is vital that we do win it because if we don't and these lads don't come through, we are in for a good few lean years."

With Joe Canning leading from the front, the chances are always fairly high.

"Even as a young fellow, Joe always seemed to be able to win games that he didn't have a right to," Murphy recalled.

"We are not talking about your average run-of-the-mill hurler here."