Saturday 23 September 2017

Joe Canning opens up on parents' illness, how losing Galway captaincy knocked his confidence and GAA booze culture

EXCLUSIVE

Joe Canning after Leinster final win and (inset) with his parents Josephine and Sean Canning
Joe Canning after Leinster final win and (inset) with his parents Josephine and Sean Canning
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

What if the wrong team just keeps winning? What if the evening cheers rolling up out of Croke Park tomorrow come from Tipperary lungs and Joe Canning soon slips into his 30th year, the light still on amber for his All-Ireland hopes? What if this story simply isn't destined to crest with a September climb up the Hogan?

It's almost a decade now since we in the media, like a College of Cardinals, took to welcoming a new Pope. Joe hit the summer of' 08 like a hurricane, scoring 2-12 for Galway against Cork in Thurles. Just 19 and only his second senior Championship game. The rest of the Galway team summoned three points between them.

Those who'd been in Semple Stadium that day acquired the status of eye-witnesses. The big kid just went barrelling into Cork like an angry weather front and very nearly won the game for a team that all but didn't show.

In the nine summers since, Canning's excellence has been a constant but, at some point, our narrative tilted. We took to wondering if he might simply be cursed to be remembered as the most gifted hurler never to win the Liam MacCarthy. This isn't his trade, his job, his livelihood, yet that is how he's found himself judged endlessly.

As if the old game represented the only point of his existence.

We meet in Oranmore, nine years on from our first interview. The timing isn't his preference. An original plan to speak the week after the Leinster final was re-worked for our convenience. It feels important to record that.

The years have brought a conspicuous physical sharpening of Joe's body, but in other ways he is unchanged. In conversation, he seldom takes refuge in cliche. He is both interested and interesting, armed with the ice-pick-sharp self-awareness of a man whose every sporting disappointment seems to draw the clucking of a thousand tongues.

For most of his career, Galway defeats have been personalised into audits on his game. Then somebody had the bright idea of putting his image, in giant form, on the side of the team bus. "Oh I hate that," he says now unequivocally. "I don't want that. I wanted it changed at the time. But who was I to say take it down or not? That sort of stuff, I don't need, like."

Joe Canning of Galway with his parents Josephine and Sean Canning
Joe Canning of Galway with his parents Josephine and Sean Canning

Because it adds to the cliche about it only being about Joe?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, one hundred per cent. You know that perception was out there. But I think it's gone now for the last number of years and I'm a lot happier with that. Because, f**k it, that's not me.

"Like, I come from a big family. I know better than anyone that you have to earn your crust and get on with other people to be a success. I remember having it out actually with Mam and Dad one day. Just telling them that I wasn't enjoying it, that I was sick of that perception that was out there. For a few years, every time we lost, it was nearly on my head.

"When we won, it was great. But, when we lost, it was the worst ever."

To some extent, that summer of '08 set Canning a vicious trap. It turned his story into a pageant. He became the kid who was permitted no frailties.

"Probably hitting that 2-12 against Cork was the worst thing I ever did," he says flatly now. "At that age… it set standards different to everybody else."

Standards he would become chained to.

Even now, even this summer with the new, thrilling democracy of Galway's attacking play, Canning can't quite escape the sense of being judged differently. The Monday before the Leinster final, his dad, Sean, told him he'd need to "improve" on his performance against Offaly. Why? Joe had not registered a score from play in Galway's 19-point win.

"He was seeing this in the paper, that I'd had a bad match or whatever," Canning remembers now. "Dad was at the match himself and we'd scored 33 points against a team playing two sweepers and two midfielders pulled deep, a team playing practically ten backs.

"I was trying to argue my case that, if we score 33 points on the day, does it really matter who gets what? But Dad being Dad and me being his son, he wants me to do well...

"And he's old school, he grew up in a generation where whatever is in the paper must be true. Or whatever is said in town over a few pints on a Saturday night, that's it. We'll often have arguments about stuff like that and that's just him being my father, wanting me to be better. I'd be a bit worried if he came in to me on a Monday and said 'You did fine the last day, just do that again…'

Joe Canning takes a sideline cut in front of then Galway manager Anthony Cunningham in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning takes a sideline cut in front of then Galway manager Anthony Cunningham in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

"He'd rather we'd score 36 or 37 points with me adding four or five from play and have lads coming up to him after, saying 'Jesus he was flying today!' I get that. That's what every parent wants. And we'll have it out, see each other's points.

"Maybe I wouldn't see his as much as he'd see mine (laughing), but that's part and parcel of it too."

Some weeks ago, Canning was giving a talk to school kids when, almost unwittingly, he found himself drawn towards a personal confession. For years, the compulsion to meet others' expectations became a little suffocating and joyless, a ritual in service to the idea that every big hurling game must, by necessity, be some kind of flashlight to his soul.

Then, within a few short months in 2015, both parents were diagnosed with cancer, his mother Josephine with breast, Sean with prostate. Thankfully both are doing fine now, but those months served to recalibrate a lot of things inside Joe Canning's head.

Things he found himself exploring with those school kids.

"It's embarrassing for me to say it," he reflects now "but it probably took Mam and Dad being sick to make me appreciate life and appreciate that hurling isn't the be-all and end-all. It seems a bit foolish looking back, thinking 'What were you putting yourself under so much pressure for?' Or letting the public get to me more than anything else.

"Like, I realise that there's different standards that I'm judged on. I didn't score from play in the last two matches and people are like 'Jesus, he was non-existent!' You can't really win, but you come to accept that as you get a little bit older.

"Nobody really knew Mam and Dad were sick, apart from people close to it. It wasn't a public thing. I'd be very close to Mam especially, because I'm the baby in the family. When I was growing up, she brought me everywhere. Dad would bring the older guys to their games but with me, it was always Mam and my sister Deirdre. I'm obviously named after her as well.

When the two of them got sick, it hit me hard. Like, people often ask me why do I play hurling. Why do you do it? I do it for Mam and Dad, to make them feel proud. To see the smile on their faces after a game. Like every young person, I probably took what my parents did for granted. But their sickness made me appreciate what they did for me a lot more.

"That's the growing up part for me I suppose. I don't know if it's changing from a child to an adult or what..."

That summer of 2015 comes back to him now, laden with heavy energies. He was just pipped by Cathal Mannion as Galway's top scorer from play in a Championship campaign that took them all the way to September. But Canning's recall of it is that he was judged to have "had a bad year". Certainly, it was a campaign that came to challenge him in more personal ways than he'd known previously.

Having been Galway captain in 2014, he lost the role without any communication from management for the reason. He'd considered turning the position down when Anthony Cunningham first mooted the idea, worried that it might deepen the intensity of focus upon him. When he'd sought the counsel of two brothers, Frank and Ollie, they too expressed their reservations.

"But then… to be asked to captain your county doesn't happen very often…"

Galway's 2014 campaign had petered out with a late All-Ireland qualifier meltdown against Tipperary in Thurles and, when they regrouped the following season, there was no mention of who would be captain.

Had he seen the demotion coming?

Joe Canning of Galway celebrates winning the Leinster hurling title at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning of Galway celebrates winning the Leinster hurling title at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

"I wasn't told, no."

So how did he hear?

"I had to ring and ask," he remembers now. "For some reason, I don't know if I was injured or something, but I'd come back a little late that year and there were a few games that I didn't play in. I don't know why. But lads kept asking me 'Are you captain again this year?'

"Dad was asking me at home. 'What's the story?' And I'm 'I don't know...'

"Because I played one or two matches in the League then and I wasn't captain. So many people were asking, it was getting to me. Because I honestly didn't know. Usually, it's announced at the start of the year, but it was never really announced. So I rang and he (Cunningham) never really said I was or I wasn't. He was just 'Well, we'll see in a while…'.

"Then David Collins was captain for a few games and continued. And that's the way it filtered out. I was never actually told, 'Listen, we're changing the captain!' And that was a big blow I suppose to my confidence.

"It's probably selfish to say it, but it's the truth. It was the first time I'd been captain of nearly anything. The only other times were my last years at minor and U-21. And I knew for years that captaincy didn't sit well with me."

How exactly?

"I don't know, I suppose I grew up with Ollie being captain for years with the club. And it struck me that he always said the right things at the right time. That was probably ingrained in me more than anything… I felt I could never be the same as him as captain. I tried to and that was probably the wrong thing to do.

"Looking back, I probably wouldn't have taken it now. But then again, would I have ever got the chance again? Captain of Galway is a huge honour, like. You can't turn it down."

Living in Dublin at the time probably didn't help him in the role, and hindsight gives him an easy understanding now of why Cunningham might have favoured a change. But the execution of the decision left something to be desired.

"Just the way it was done," he stresses. "I wouldn't mind if I was told, 'Listen, we don't think this is working, we're going to go with somebody else...' One hundred per cent, I could take that, no problem. It's just I was never told really or given a reason why. And I accept it might sound selfish to say it knocked me, but that's human nature.

"It probably knocked Mam and Dad as well. They were asking 'Why aren't you captain?' People were asking them too. And I'm 'I don't know!' The normal thing is a captaincy lasts two or three years unless the management changes. But the management didn't change.

"And, yeah, I found that tough."

HE sits now in T-shirt and shorts, sipping constantly from a litre bottle of water. At 6ft 2in and 92kg (14st 7oz), Canning's athleticism is palpable. His frame has been re-shaped by the imperatives facing the modern GAA county man and it seems startling to consider that in the soaring skyline of Galway's attack, he is far from the most imposing now.

Canning's frame has changed with the years and it had to. In the first half of his career, his weight was an issue and he is disarmingly open about the route he took to change.

It was the season of 2009 and he'd been struggling for some time with the heel condition plantar fasciitis. The problem became compounded by sciatica and, with Galway due to play a Leinster Championship semi-final against Kilkenny in Tullamore, Canning was struggling to track down a solution. He'd got insoles and plasma injections, visiting just about every specialist familiar to the broader GAA community.

Then a friend in Cork recommended a Scottish chiropractor, Ian Law, based in Carrigaline. A recommendation that changed everything.

"I got all the usual warnings you get about chiropractors, people telling me 'Don't go near them!' he reflects now. "But I just thought 'I've nothing to lose here'.

In a single week, Canning was seen 21 times by Law, the results so profound he would continue visiting the practice for years to come. One of the immediate consequences of those visits was his body shedding large quantities of fluid.

"Whatever he was doing to me, I seemed to be on the toilet the whole time, p***ing. I was just getting rid of excess water and I'd say I lost about a stone in that time," he remembers. "He was just cracking my back and stuff. I was all tight and had bad posture and, because of that, seemed to be retaining excess water inside of me. I was probably blocked up a little bit.

So I lost a lot of weight then and that continued into 2010 and 2011. By 2012, I was down to my lightest ever. I mean going down to him, I was probably 16 stone. It was too much. But I remember we played St Thomas's in a (Galway) semi-final in 2013 and I was 88kg then, the lightest I'd been in a long time. Just under 14 stone.

"I'm back up to 92kg now because I'd probably lost too much. And I'm happy with that. Like, I'd be one of the lightest bigger lads in the Galway panel now, even if I still look a bit heavier than others.

"But seeing him was a big turning point for my physique."

He has had his injury setbacks along the way since, none more challenging than the chronic hamstring tear that forced him out of last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. The Galway physios had been able to tell him instantly that the injury would require surgery, but Canning admits he did not fully process that information until presenting himself into Eanna Falvey's clinic the following Monday week.

He had no power in the leg and found it painful to sit on, yet found himself clinging to the forlorn hope that aggressive physiotherapy might resolve the problem.

"Until I actually sat in Eanna's room and he said to me 'When can we get this surgery done?', it hadn't really registered with me.

"Suddenly, I was kind of sitting there, going 'F**k!'

He was operated on in Cork the following Tuesday, turning up at Portumna training that evening on crutches and with a knee brace that would remain in place for the next six weeks.

"I couldn't straighten my leg for those six weeks until they were happy the wound had healed," he reflects now. "The tendon had been stitched back. Like, I had to even wear the brace in bed because, if I straightened my leg, I could have ripped the stitches open.

"I was unlucky that it was so severe, yet lucky too that it wasn't worse. There was a centimetre and a half still attached to the bone and then it retracted down four centimetres. It's like an elastic band or whatever. So you just attach it back onto the bone. But let's say that centimetre and a half came off the bone too, that the whole thing was gone, they say more than likely it'd have taken a bit of the bone off as well.

"So that's never going to sit back perfectly on the bone. That's what happened Paul O'Connell. It's like a piece of jigsaw that doesn't quite fit. So I was lucky in a way. I mean I never once thought that I wouldn't play again.

"Like, I'd heard stuff, I was told I mightn't. But the competitor in me would always want to prove people wrong in that."

The early prognosis was that, at best, it would take Canning seven or eight months to get back playing. He managed to crack a comeback inside six.

"I nearly fell out with the boys (physios) a couple of times because they wouldn't let me train," he remembers. "Looking back, it was obviously the right thing from them. I was constantly on to them 'Lads, I feel fine, let me back out!' They had to hold me back a little bit because, obviously, I wasn't right.

"I could have wrecked it."

Galway, of course, finished just a solitary point short of Tipp last August, Canning and Adrian Tuohy both incapacitated for the second half, then watched their neighbours jump all over Kilkenny in a one-sided All-Ireland final.

It was paltry consolation to a group now under pitiless scrutiny from their own. The player-driven removal of Cunningham as manager soon after their 2015 final defeat left them in a cold environment, the stark reality of which now came home to bear in February. When Galway spurned a six-point lead against Wexford to effectively blow their National League promotion chance, the Salthill acoustic turned ugly.

"We got a fair doing from a lot of local journalists after that," reflects Canning now. "That was worse, I felt, than any loss in a long time. It was a sickening one for a while. Just the reaction to it and what we were described as I suppose…"

He doesn't deny that the Cunningham story would have stiffened local anger.

"Oh yeah, but that's an easy thing," says Canning. "Like, Clare players didn't want Davy, but there was little enough about it. It was fine. There's lots of other counties that that happened to in the last few years and it was fine.

"It was just an easy stick to beat us with. But, like, you live and die by the sword. And that's fine if that's what they want to go back to the whole time, fine. Fair enough. But we've moved on. You have to. That was done two years ago, so that was a tough one to take, especially from local media.

"But you know, nobody was thinking about the sixth of August back then. And you can understand that in a way as well. It seems a long time ago now, but that hit us tough as a group. It was something that we didn't really want to experience again."

Five weeks later, Galway would find themselves ten points down on the same field in a quarter-final against an experimenting Waterford, yet ended up winning by three. And nobody has managed to lay a glove on them since.

What has changed?

We kind of took it on ourselves as players on the pitch more than anything," he suggests. "In years gone by, we'd probably have just played out the match. 'Ah it's grand!' Accept we couldn't turn it round. But I remember lads like David Burke and Johnny Coen being very vocal on the field.

"And that was a huge, huge turning point in our season. Because, obviously, if we didn't win that we were out of the League. And it was a long time from then till the Championship game against Dublin."

The fear, of course, is that the 'difference' in this Galway team proves illusory. Canning understands that. But he believes in what he sees as the trust Micheál Donoghue has been investing in the players this year, the sense of giving people time.

"In years gone by, I suppose if you weren't going well, you'd be whipped off straight away," Canning reflects. "Like, remember Conor Cooney got brought on in an All-Ireland final and was taken off again after a few minutes. Conor is one of the best forwards in Ireland, he has everything. And you can see him flourishing now because he has that confidence from management.

"Like, I just think that it's a different culture that we have now. It's more about the players stepping up. I think they have more… not authority, but ownership of the thing. There's more communication. We're a little more mature. A lot of the guys are 23, 24 or 25.

"Like I'm one of the oldest!"

But what if the wrong team just keeps winning? Galway have appeared in three All-Ireland finals during Joe Canning's time, drawing one and losing two.

The energy around their replay against Kilkenny in 2012 switched profoundly when his shot rebounded off the butt of a Canal end upright and, within seconds, Kilkenny sniped a Hill end goal.

Such small moments can define careers, he understands that.

What he argues is that they can't define a person.

Funny how this inter-county life can so corrupt perspective. Recently, he attended a Gavin James concert in The Big Top and was helping his girlfriend bring down drinks from the bar when a fellow punter intercepted him with the caution 'Jaysus Joe don't be drinking all those!'

Canning, as it happens, was drinking coffee.

But that's the perverse groove of a county man's existence now. Feeling answerable to strangers.

"The balance is wrong," he says flatly. "Like before the third Lions Test, there were pictures of the players drinking beer. After Ireland beat Italy at the Euros last year, there were pictures of them slugging bottles in the dressing-room. It was accepted.

"I'm in Limerick a lot now (where he is a partner in the Camile Thai restaurant) and you'll see Munster players out after a Pro12 game, having a few beers, nothing major. It's fine, it's accepted. But the amateur athlete does that and it's frowned upon.

"Because of that, the culture in the GAA is for lads to go on the p*ss for a day or two after a big game. And that's totally wrong for both your body and your mind. They end up sick for nearly a week afterwards because they feel they have to go ballistic.

"I'm not for a second recommending a drink culture, but the balance is so wrong. You're always kind of on edge now when you're out. You're almost paranoid. And that's wrong too."

Tipperary on the horizon again naturally concentrates the mind now. Especially so for any son of Portumna, separated, as they are, from Lorrha only by the width of the Shannon.

But Canning approaches the challenge, comfortable in his own skin. He's been to Syria and Swaziland in recent times with UNICEF and reckons he has a fair handle on perspective.

"This is hurling at the end of the day," he says quietly. "When I said recently that it won't define me, I had people asking me 'Why don't you take it seriously?' I do take it seriously, but what defines me is how I am seen by my family more than anything else. Like my family don't look at my medals at home. I don't even know where the medals are.

"Perspective is lost on so many things in Irish society, it's crazy!"

So Joe Canning ten years from now, with or without a Celtic Cross? What does he envisage?

"Just someone happy and healthy and, hopefully, with a business that I can work in for the rest of my life," he says. "Maybe a family and marriage too. I'll be 38, so still hurling? I don't know. Like, I see Ollie still going at 41, but he's just a different animal.

"Like there's not that many years left in me at inter-county. I could have been gone last year. I'll be 29 in October and you don't see too many boys playing past 30 now.

"It all depends on how my body is and if I'm playing well enough to get picked by management.

"But I don't want to go out on anybody else's terms either. If I don't feel I'm up to it next year, that could be when I go.

"If it's two years or three years or four years and I feel I can still offer something to the panel, then I'm all for it. But if I feel that I'm only there as a token gesture... that's not me. I won't be hanging around. I don't like people kind of feeling sorry for me or being nice to me for the sake of it.

"I don't appreciate that at all. I'm the same as anybody else. I like to earn my stripes."

Bord Gais Energy - Hurling to the Core and proud sponsor of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship

Joe Canning is a Bord Gáis Energy #HurlingToTheCore ambassador.

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