Galway not doing enough to get best out of Canning
If Galway want to prosper, Joe Canning needs to play -- and stay -- at full-forward, writes Damian Lawlor
L AST December, as the All Star hurlers prepared to depart Dublin Airport for Buenos Aires, a crowd gathered around one player who had a supply of extra sleeping tablets.
Many dreading the 14-hour flight queued, hoping their colleague's sedatives would do the trick. One particular hurler, a nervous flier, was becoming increasingly anxious before take-off and knowing he wouldn't be able to get some shut-eye wasn't helping his mood. He had only taken his seat on the plane when he looked across the aisle and saw Joe Canning in a deep sleep.
"Jesus Christ, is there anything that man can't do?" he asked to laughter around him.
Canning's second All Star was certainly well deserved and when he returned from Argentina it seemed he was hell bent on putting in an early claim for his third. He scored 1-8 for Portumna in the All-Ireland club semi-final win over Dunloy, followed by 0-12 in an epic display in defeat to Ballyhale. He was then central to Galway's first league crown for six years, scoring 1-5 against Cork.
It took Kilkenny and the recent Leinster final to halt the momentum. Sixty seven minutes had elapsed when Canning finally broke free of their shackles for his first point of the day. Most Galway supporters were homeward bound by then.
Canning was on the 40 that day, yet the conventional wisdom is that Galway's team management should have placed him directly on Noel Hickey, who was still finding his sharpness after a lengthy injury. The 21-year-old was moved to four different positions that day as Galway tried to get him into the game, but nothing clicked.
Galway's tactical error was compounded when they also moved Damien Hayes, another serious goal threat, out the field. Brian Cody must have looked on with glee when he saw Galway's deadliest marksmen operating far from where they could do most damage.
When they did finally move Canning back into full-forward, he was gobbled up by the seasoned duo of Hickey and Jackie Tyrrell. Canning ended the game with two sublime late points but it was a lost afternoon's hurling for him.
The past few games have seen hurling's most exciting young talent being needlessly moved about: corner-forward, centre-forward, even wing-forward. With Hayes motoring well at number 14, Canning was marginalised at corner-forward against Offaly. That prompted John McIntyre to try him at centre-forward against Kilkenny. It was a strange decision, especially when you consider the damage Canning did to the Cats' full-back line in Tullamore during last year's championship. There was no such threat this time around.
The following day, the hurling pundits let fly. Tony Considine, in the Irish Examiner, spared no one in his analysis. "Their star men, guys like Ger Farragher, David Collins, Iarla Tannian, were very quiet, while Joe Canning was especially so. He looked to me like a guy who was sulking, not as committed to the cause as you'd expect at this level. There was no comparison yesterday between Joe's contribution and the contribution of the man whose mantle many hurling people expect him to take over -- Henry Shefflin. On this display he's still a long way behind Henry, in work-rate, in scoring -- the man remains the King, the ultimate team player."
A little over the top maybe, even if the comparison with Shefflin and his willingness to play anywhere is valid. However, Canning is simply not suited to that role -- even if he sometimes does it to good effect with Portumna. And if the Galway management have learned their lessons, you won't see him wandering around Croke Park today. He'll be back on the edge of the square.
"Lessons learned, they'll definitely have to play him full-forward," says former Galway manager Cyril Farrell. "The supporters need Joe on fire and we all need him full-forward. I'd put Hayes alongside him and throw balls straight into them. How hard do we make hurling sometimes?
"The lads are goal getters and that's the way they play for Portumna. It's simple hurling -- they won't be expecting the ball on a plate but they've been hurling together since they were 15. They mightn't be always together off the pitch but on it they're telepathic and can read each other from 15 yards away."
Then there is the fact that Canning has been relieved of his role as primary free-taker. Last season, whilst operating mostly at number 14 and taking placed balls, he managed 3-45 from five games against big teams like Waterford, Kilkenny, Clare, Cork and earlier, Laois.
This year, without most of the free-taking opportunities and the issue over his position, the impact can be seen on his scoring return. Although he's still managed a handsome 3-12 from four games he's down about six points a match on his usual returns.
The sublime skills are all still intact; he just needs to settle again. He looked every inch the heir to Shefflin's throne in the All-Ireland club final in March. In the league final, he notched 1-5 from play against young Eoin Dillon and began the championship with a killer goal to snuff out Wexford. When they were in trouble in the replay against Offaly, he scored the lead point, having also set up a vital Kevin Hynes point with a wonder pass the Sunday before.
But now he probably needs to be left at full-forward and to be put back on free-taking duties. The in-form Ger Farragher hasn't put a foot wrong all season but Canning, the most important player on the team, thrives on the pressure and responsibility of being the free-taker.
"That issue is clearly a problem for Galway hurling, no doubt about it, simply because the two lads are so good at it," says Joe Cooney. "I don't know if there are two better free-takers in the country but the management have a dilemma here. Sometimes, when you're converting frees, it covers other aspects of your game. But if you take them off one lad and hand them over to someone else, you'll have the same problem with the hurler you've just denied."
Cyril Farrell thinks too much has been made of this issue. "I don't think they need to put him back on frees. Joe is a great hurler without them and Farragher has done nothing wrong at all. He's been our main man this year. All we have to do is get enough ball into Joe but we haven't been doing that. That's the problem, not the free-taking."
Farrell and Cooney agree that Canning needs to be on the edge of the square today if Galway are to go forward. "It was foolish against Kilkenny," says Cooney. "We were 10 points down and then we bring Joe back inside with two Kilkenny lads on him -- we robbed ourselves of our two best forwards that day. Joe needs to be on the edge of the square with Hayes. The only way I'd bring Damien out is if we were a few points up. He might hold the ball up out there.
"People were on Joe's back after the Leinster final but he wasn't getting any decent ball and you can't be on top of your game every day either. He's only a young lad, I'd feel the other forwards have to take a look at themselves. If there were two men on Joe against Kilkenny, it should have given others space. Our half-forwards didn't win enough possession."
John McIntyre and his backroom team have had plenty of time to think since then. They took a break from training, played in the local championship and regrouped for a training camp at Johnstown House, Enfield last week.
McIntyre will argue that they had no choice but to bring Canning out the field against Kilkenny to help win possession. And he'll argue that they had to bring Hayes out too because there was still no ball going inside. But it proved a painful lesson, and the mistake won't be repeated today.
As for Canning, great players want to perform against the best, that's where they are judged, and he simply didn't turn up in the Leinster final. If that game was a rare black mark, there's every chance he will make amends by striving to be the difference this time.
If he's not, the critics won't be easy on him. He knows that's the way it is.