Joe Canning: 'I found it hard to enjoy hurling over the last few years'
So the game that stole his boyhood permits Joe Canning a glimpse of the mountain-top. His fifth championship year, and Galway have finally found the door to September somewhere under that thick net of broken promises. No point trying to parse the meaning of all that's gone before now. For this is where he was born to be, up where the air is thin.
He is 23 and, unmistakably, a senior officer in Anthony Cunningham's revolution. In any ordinary life, his age would protect him from the expectation of heavy lifting. But Joe and ordinariness have never been allowed in the one room.
Fate has blessed and cursed him in equal measure then. Galway's recent championship history has been little more than a blank grid of disappointments and, in a county parched of patience, much sour stuff came his way. There have been times when it left Joe wondering.
"Being straight up about it, I found it hard to enjoy hurling over the last couple of years," he concedes. "I suppose I'm my own worst critic in that I do set myself standards. If I don't meet them, I get frustrated.
"So, there was a point where you'd be wondering was it worth it for all the abuse and stuff that you get off people.
"But, at the end of the day, it's a thing you chose to do when you were young. Yeah, it would be in your head that you'll get to 24 or 25 and all people will say about you is you were a good minor or a good U-21. That would be the worst thing you could hear.
"The thing is, people say to me that I'm around a long time, but I don't feel it. They say I've won a lot in the game but, to be honest, I don't know where any of the medals are at home. That doesn't interest me. What interests me is the next day."
And the mother and father of all "next days" now looms.
HE looks different because he is. The athlete in him has found expression after a winter of submission to the muddy slavery that is now de rigueur for paring young men down to physical readiness for the championship. It wasn't that he ever wilfully side-stepped hardship in the past, more that too many masters maybe sought too much from him.
From his early teens, Joe has been needed by one team or another across all grades and seasons. To be game-fresh, his instinct has always been to hold something in reserve, to prioritise games above preparation.
To this end, maybe his itinerary became a trap. For a kid who played in a senior county final with Portumna at 15, who had won two minor All-Irelands at the age of 16, an All-Ireland U-21, a Fitzgibbon, four county titles and three All-Ireland clubs by 20, it isn't hard to see where the conflict could have arisen.
This year, Joe admits to weighing in "over a stone" lighter than he was last year. It is as if lead weights have been taken from his shoes.
His form then is no coincidence. Hindsight arms Canning with a keener understanding of the few lost days when he might have felt ponderous in the rising heat of battle. Maybe last year, particularly.
"At the time, you think it's the best thing to do, to try and save yourself as much as you can to be able to give 100pc on the day," he reflects. "You're minding yourself to stay fresh, because there are so many matches. Then you're getting injuries, and when you're injured, you can't train and push yourself totally.
"So, maybe I wasn't doing the hard, physical training that needed to be done because I felt, if I did it, I'd be no good on the day of matches. But I was probably no good any day of a match the last couple of years anyway. I was only kind of joking myself in a way."
The self-assessment is palpably unjust, yet Canning's candour reflects a desire to take his story to another level. An All Star in his first year of senior championship hurling, he sees his inter-county career since as a single chapter of underachievement.
"That's what the majority of people out there perceive anyway," he shrugs. "I honestly don't care if I play bad and we win. But because we weren't getting the breaks the last couple of years, because we weren't getting the results, things seemed to come back on me.
"Everybody has to take responsibility in those situations. And I know myself there's a lot more in me. I'm still not happy with what I give to the team at this stage. But then, if you're happy with where you are at the moment, you're only going backwards."
The rat-a-tat fire of critics and finger-jabbing of strangers can filch a lot of the joy from being a county man. And Canning's heaven-sent gift means he's forever exposed to a scrutiny not necessarily reasonable or fair.
Three years ago, Portumna's All-Ireland club semi-final battle with Ballyhale Shamrocks became trussed up for media convenience as a shoot-out between 'The King' (Henry Shefflin) and 'The Prince' (Canning). At such times it can feel as if his life is just someone else's fable.
He is uncomfortable with the Shefflin comparison. Henry, he points out, is chasing a ninth All-Ireland medal. Until now, Joe and Galway hadn't even got beyond the final eight.
"It's stupid," he says. "I laugh sometimes at what is said in papers, I find it comical enough. But people zone in on it and perceive that I'm a different person to what I am. Perception in Ireland seems to be a very, very powerful thing and it's just something I have to deal with.
"That's fine. That's just people who don't know me. I know people who are serious about their hurling, and are realistic. It's all about not living in a wonderland of your own bubble.
"I don't believe in people being two-faced. They're your best friend now but, 10 days later if you lose a match, they don't want to talk to you. Maybe you have to accept that in every walk of life.
"It's just amazing what an hour can do to people's perceptions. You even look at Tipperary a couple of weeks back, getting dogs' abuse from everybody. If it fills people's imaginations and conversations, then so be it. But they don't realise the sacrifices made just to get that far.
"That's the frustrating thing. There seems (to be) no in-between with people."
He uses social media -- "you'd live a very sad life if you didn't feel free to do normal things" -- but says he has learnt to compartmentalise what is valuable and what isn't.
His Twitter name is joeycan88 and he positively recoils when you suggest that it could be interpreted as some kind of promise to bridge the gap to Galway's last senior All-Ireland win.
The truth is, it is an abbreviation of his name and the year of his birth. "Never thought of it that way," he smiles. "I might change it now."
Funny how the year has opened up like an exotic flower for Canning and Galway. He dislocated his shoulder in a Fitzgibbon Cup quarter-final last February, subsequently missing the league for a second season running.
He returned for the relegation play-off against Dublin and, after a scoreless opening half, Cunningham then brought him out to the half-forward line, from where Joe would score six second-half points from play. That was the moment that Joe's (and Galway's) season began to find coherence.
The game was drawn, but they won the replay by 14 points, Canning scoring 2-7. A boulder had been lifted from the chest.
"Beating Dublin was huge for us," he reflects. "Because people were writing us off again. Like (when) we lost by two points against Waterford; if we'd won that, we'd probably have been in the semi-final. Next thing we find ourselves struggling to avoid relegation.
"It was that fine a line because a lot of people were getting on our backs again. You're wondering, 'are we going anywhere? Are we going backwards'?"
He'd been in Nowlan Park the day of the 25-point mauling against next weekend's opponents and understood the doubts. "Maybe Kilkenny do that to everybody now and then, but it does ask a question, obviously: are we the same team as we were? I think we've answered that, since we're not the same team."
If the Leinster final changed everything, few were surprised to find his fingerprints on that change. Listen to Donal O'Grady's co-commentary on RTE television. Less than two-and-a-half minutes into the game, he is telling Marty Morrissey: "With a talent like Joe (inside), surely the thing to do is to feed him as early as you can ... "
Just as O'Grady is finishing the sentence, Iarla Tannian's 70-yard delivery is dropping between Canning and Jackie Tyrrell on the edge of the Kilkenny square. Jackie swings, as if to discourage the catch. He fails. Joe's goal triggers a sudden and inscrutable systems collapse in Kilkenny.
Who could have foreseen it?
Canning is too intelligent to peddle the day as something they knew was imminent. He talks of how nobody legislates for the value of luck in high-octane sport, reminding you that, under John McIntyre, Galway lost All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2009 and 2010 by a single point.
"Everybody's human," he says. "You always had that sense when those tight games came of, 'will we win them?'''
But then, last year represented a jarring flat spot, dramatic meltdowns against both Dublin and Waterford that were interpreted as evidence of a team devoid of heart.
"Maybe in times gone past, lads did their own thing, looking over their shoulder thinking, 'I have to get a score here or I'm going to get dragged off ... ' You know, that's obviously fair enough as well," he suggests. "You don't blame any guy for that. But I think a lot (of the success) this year has to do with the fact that management have that confidence in us.
"They're actually praising the guy that gives the pass more than the one who gets the score. And that's great to see.
"It's all about what we believe in inside the four white lines in Athenry or Pearse Stadium or wherever we're training. That's the most important thing. I don't care, and I don't think the rest of the guys care, what people say. We believe in a system that we have and, if it doesn't work, fair enough.
"But at least we are all in it together. That's what you have to get, almost a club unity like where you're hurling with your brother, your neighbour, your cousin or the friend you went to school with. That's what we're trying to build and, hopefully, that'll be good enough to win the All-Ireland."
He is unspecific about what Cunningham, Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenny have changed, though the transfusion of youth into the panel has palpably changed the emotional dynamic. Seventeen of the Galway squad are U-21s.
"The young lads, I suppose, have no fear," says Canning, himself a grizzled elder now. "There's a huge sense of team, which probably wasn't there in years before. We're concentrating a lot more on our hurling too.
"People can be looking for an edge and stuff like that but, at the end of the day, it's hurling. If you get the basic skills right, you'll get far. There's a lot of things coming in (to training) scientifically and that's grand. It's something different. Some players enjoy it, but a lot of it is gimmicks. A lot of it is going past what actually is the game of hurling.
"If you don't have your first touch, your sharpness, your speed, you're going nowhere. Maybe we might have been lacking that extra five or 10pc in that regard for the last couple of years."
HE doesn't pretend to know Kilkenny's plan for him, but it's not something that will thieve his sleep. Exhaustive pre-match analysis has never greatly interested Canning. Maybe from the middle of next week, he will remove himself from the family's hurley-making business and just focus on his own space. If the mood carries him, he might even take a day or two in Dublin.
"I'd be fairly relaxed, almost lazy, I suppose, in a way," he smiles. "I like to get away and do other stuff. I'd be big into shopping, which other lads might find weird. I mean, hurling is always on your mind, you're never going to get away from it 100pc. But you can't be worrying about it either. You can't be so uptight about sport that you use all this energy worrying about your next match.
"I don't believe in over-analysing my marker, the opposition or anything like that. I'd be more focused on how we're set up. But, I don't really like to be around the business at home coming up to matches, or just after them.
"Everybody who comes in wants to talk about the match. That's draining because it's a sideshow. People have the best of intentions but, if you keep the same conversation going with everybody, you're eventually going to get fed up with it. On a personal level, I'd be very kind of narky around that time. I just like to stay away and relax."
It isn't difficult in an extended family that numbers more than 30 now, including nieces and nephews. The Canning kids, he says, know him only as Uncle Joe. Nobody feels the need to step around him.
People keep asking if Galway can repeat the magic trick of the Leinster final, and his standard response doesn't extend beyond a reminder that they lost the second half that day and "were told about that straight after the match".
He won't try to be a keynote orator in the dressing-room tomorrow week, for that just isn't his way. "If you ask any of the lads, I'd probably be smiling and laughing in a dressing-room," he says. "I try to keep in as much energy as I can and not give off a negative vibe. Not be too uptight.
"I wouldn't be hitting tables or banging doors or anything like that. I'd be fairly laid-back and relaxed in most things I do anyway. Probably need a good kick up the a**e sometimes (laughing)."
In hurling, it is natural for Kilkenny to spread long shadows. The key maybe is not to get lost in them.
"We're not going up to make up the numbers," stresses Canning. "We're going up to win.
"We realise it's not going to be anything near what it was in the Leinster final but, if we believe as a team and get a performance, hopefully that'll be good enough. It's going to be tough and it's whoever wants it most on the day (that) will come home with the Liam MacCarthy.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."