'Hurling is my life'
Published 28/06/2008 | 00:00
He hasn't seen the GPA ad yet, his face peering down from the side of a double-decker bus. The ad refers to Galway's 20-year wait for a senior hurling All-Ireland. What it doesn't say, of course, is that Joe Canning wasn't even born the day Conor Hayes lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup in 1988.
Do you find the hype and attention un-nerving in any way?
“People say don't pick up a paper or, maybe, don't look at this GAA website or that one. But you're going to. You're human. It's always in the back of your mind. You can say you're not going to look at this or that. But you do. It's a fact of life.
“The thing is, it doesn't really get to me. I know who I am. If people want to slate me, they can slate me. I'm there to be talked about and you have to take the good with the bad. If something bad is said about me, it probably affects my family more than me. I'm pretty easy-going myself.
“Some people get uptight about things that are said about them, but I try to avoid that. Everybody has their free speech.”
His youth is overlooked in almost every audit of his talent. Canning has already won All-Irelands at every level, bar senior inter-county (two clubs, two minors, one U-21, one Fitzgibbon).
He is chat-board gold, one website recently suspending any further topics relating to him, with a warning that "anyone starting a new topic on Joe Canning will be banned".
This drew the response from one user "Is JC the next JC?", suggesting that any such ban might be construed as "persecuting people on religious grounds". Eerily, the last two great Gods of Galway hurling, John Connolly and Joe Cooney, shared the same initials as Canning. They, too, found themselves referred to as ‘The Messiah!'
Yet, only today will Joe Canning finally make his senior Championship debut for Galway when he lines out at corner-forward against Antrim in Casement Park. He spoke candidly this week to Chief Sports Feature Writer VINCENT HOGAN
"The thing is, it doesn't really get to me. I know who I am. If people want to slate me, they can slate me. I'm there to be talked about and you have to take the good with the bad. If something bad is said about me, it probably affects my family more than me. I'm pretty easy-going myself.
"Some people get uptight about things that are said about them, but I try to avoid that. Everybody has their free speech."
But doesn't the internet expose you to a different type of scrutiny and a different type of criticism?
"You just have to watch yourself. I could be going for a night out in Portumna and not drinking. Next thing, someone's saying 'Jesus did you see him the other night? Forty pints.' And it might be a thing that you were just in town, selling lotto or whatever. You might have been home within 10 minutes.
"That's the way it goes in the public eye. Most people are good. You get the few a******s, people that are maybe jealous. I don't know what it is. Sometimes I get abuse at matches, but the same people could be clapping you on the back the next day if you win with Galway.
"I see that especially with Portumna. The abuse you might get in a local derby. You could be coming off the pitch being told you're the worst yoke alive and, next thing, the same fella is telling you you've had a great game. People can be like that. I suppose they want what's best for themselves or their own club.
"Some just take it too far."
Still, here you are at 19. Your face is on the side of double-decker buses in Dublin. You've already won multiple All-Irelands. You're being touted as the next big thing in hurling. Does it ever feel a bit mad in your world?
"Well at home I'm just the same as any of the brothers. I've five brothers and one sister and it's as if nobody really knows that I have a sister. But Deirdre played camogie with Galway. Growing up, she used bring me to matches. If there was ever a bad word said about any of us, she'd be the first one in defending our honour.
"The family is very tight-knit. They're not obsessed with the big things or the big matches. Obviously they talk about them, but they don't blow it up. We don't get carried away. At the end of the day, hurling is only a game.
"You hear about the ad above in Dublin, but I don't feel like I'm up there. Maybe because I didn't see it yet. It's a bit surreal. I suppose if you thought too much about it, you would start wondering what other people thought of you. But I don't really care what people think so long as my family and friends know who I am."
So the family keeps you grounded?
"Definitely. But I'm down in Limerick for maybe two-thirds of the year (he studies Business and Marketing at LIT). The guys that I live with in Limerick keep me grounded too. They play hurling as well, they know the craic. They'd be slagging you sometimes when you're in the paper.
"But, if they thought I was getting ahead of myself, they wouldn't talk to me. It's the same at home. If they thought that was happening, I'd be told straight out. And I think that's the way to have it. I've a couple of nephews now starting to hurl and I suppose, as a family, it's a thing we're trying to encourage in them. Just to stay calm.
"Because as any hurler will tell you, you can't hurl when you're uptight."
Who are the housemates in Limerick?
"Gavin O'Mahony is on the Limerick senior panel as well as being captain of their U-21s. Then there's a few other guys from Limerick, Paudie O'Brien and David Slattery. Nicky Cleere from Kilkenny. Actually, Shane McGrath from Tipperary was in the house until Christmas.
"We all play with LIT, all get up at six o'clock in the morning and go training or whatever under Davy Fitz. We hang around together. In a couple of weeks' time, we're going for a game of golf. We're good buddies."
Between college, club and county, you can be pulled in so many different directions. Does this ever begin to impede your love of hurling?
"People ask me am I ever sick of it. I think it's the same in any sport, be it rugby or soccer -- okay, they're professional -- But like them, we're playing it day in, day out. They don't seem to get sick of it. So why should we?
"People say because it's an amateur sport and you're not getting money, you might tire of it. I think, if anything, that drives you on a bit more. Because you're standing for something, you're representing something. You're part of a parish, a small-knit community.
"You look at Manchester United or Liverpool and they're worldwide organisations. What we do is tight-knit. And you're even prouder to be part of that. You've a sense of identity. That's something I never get sick of. If I did, I'd probably be playing rugby now."
But the demands on your time are massive. What about the simple issue of living a life as well?
"It's often forgotten. You can very easily get a bad reputation when you're in the limelight. You're there to be knocked. I see that with Paul Galvin now. You hear people say that he deserved the six months. To me, that's absolutely crazy. He only got sent off once before in 30-odd Championship games, an unbelievable record for the type of player that he is. I mean, he plays on the borderline.
"To me, he's a player that you'd love to go and see because he gives it 100pc. My reading of it is that he went to the linesman because he felt that he was getting fouled the whole time. And the linesman told the referee to book him. Surely he was in his rights to go to the linesman.
"Okay, he then went a bit over the top, knocking the referee's notebook. But, if that happened me, I wouldn't hold back either. And he's being hammered obviously for hitting the notebook."
Your argument is that he didn't hurt anybody?
And that some fellas are getting off for doing far worse?
"I know all about it, don't worry."
We'll return to that, but you are being spoken of in the media as the new Henry Shefflin. Would you prefer not to hear that kind of comparison given that you're just starting out in your senior inter-county career?
"It's a thing I suppose that I don't really want to hear because it puts a lot more pressure on me in front of people. If I go out in a club game and maybe only get a point from play or whatever, people will invariably say 'Jasus our lad is not even that great a hurler, but he held Joe Canning to only a point. Canning must be rubbish!'
"It's that kind of thing I'm uncomfortable with. Because it comes into my head then that I've to go out the next day and score four or five points just to shut that person up. You might have created five points the day before, but he didn't see that.
"I find people look more at what I score than what I create. Proper hurling people will see the amount you set up, but hurlers on the ditch judge you only on what you score. The corner-back mightn't have hit a ball all day. But if I've only scored a point, it's no good."
That was a frequent complaint of DJ Carey's too.
"It's the same way with Henry Shefflin. He came back from that cruciate injury the last day and scored 11 points, 10 frees, one from play. And I heard people giving out that he had only scored a point from play. I mean, he set up the two goals. He orchestrated everything. And people were saying he hadn't been that good!
"He had a serious game, set up a load of scores. But if people don't see him scoring from play, they're thinking he's gone past it, saying he's not the hurler that he was. Yet, his general play is unbelievable.
"People in Galway are saying now that I'm not scoring that much this year. And, in fairness, I haven't in the club championship. People draw their own conclusions from that. Usually that you're just not as good as people are making you out to be.
"And I'd agree with that too because I'm not as good as some people make me out to be. But that's the point. I'm not making myself out to be anything."
When Conor Hayes included you in the Galway senior squad for the 2006 All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny, you decided not to go in. Were you tempted?
"Of course I was. But I was minor captain and we were playing the day after against Antrim. So it was just the wrong timing. Maybe if it was the week before. I spoke to Mattie (Murphy, manager of the minors) and I just didn't feel it was right for me.
"Anyway, the senior guys had been training all year and for me to come in at that stage I don't think would have been fair on the fellas who had been there, training the whole time. And it wouldn't have been fair on the minor guys either if I got injured.
"People look back on it now and ask could I have made a difference. I don't think so. I was only 17 at the time. I don't think anybody could have made a difference against Kilkenny that day. They just annihilated Galway."
Did you feel that Hayes was under pressure to include you?
"He was coming under pressure from people around the county. To be fair, we had a few talks, but he understood where I was coming from. If it had been a week earlier or a week later, who knows?"
This was the year of the acrimonious county final against Loughrea in which you sustained a bad facial injury. There was speculation at the time that you were considering giving up hurling and that you had been offered a rugby contract with Connacht. Was any of this true?
"No, none of it was true. I think the media just caught onto the comments of Sean Treacy, saying that I was thinking of packing it in and, maybe because I was playing rugby at the time, people put two and two together. It wasn't a case of me ever saying that I would.
"Someone just happened to mention the possibility and, suddenly, the story had wings.
"I did get an offer from Shannon when I was down in Limerick alright. But that was through a friend of mine, Paul Loughnane, who played U-21 with me. Shannon had seen the stuff in the paper and were wondering was there truth to it. They didn't actually offer me very much. But I said I didn't want to anyway."
How bad was that whole experience? You were, after all, still only 17. Yet, this was now national news and there was that photograph of a boot coming down on your helmet?
"I think I went into a state of, not so much depression as... I kind of felt that I just wanted to go away for a while, to let it all smooth over. I was hoping that it would get sorted out, that it would be dealt with. But, obviously, it wasn't. Which is for another day.
"The fact that it wasn't dealt with made things worse. It just dragged it out more. If the people who did it had been dealt with, that would have been fine. So it was the aftermath that really hurt.
"It wasn't losing the county final. You get over that. Fair enough, they won the game. Well done. You get over it.
"To lose any final would take you a couple of days to get over. But then the inquiry into it made things worse. I never spoke to any papers, yet people made it look as if our club was, basically, just whingeing.
"We weren't complaining about the county final loss. It was about the inquiry afterwards. The guys that did the serious stuff got away with it. The guys involved in minor stuff -- look, it's the same thing with Paul Galvin.
"He didn't hurt anybody, but he gets six months. (Selectors) Sean Treacy and Jimmy Heverin got suspensions for talking in the media back then. Yet, some of the guys that were involved in the incident got off Scott-free.
"So, at the time, I just wanted to go away. To hide for a while and let it go away. To wake up some morning and find it had never happened. But I had to pick myself up. Everybody in the club had to pick themselves up and get on with it.
"And I think we proved we did that by winning the club championship last year and following it with the All-Ireland. We had a point to prove, especially to the hurling board. We were making a statement that we had to win this for our pride. And we did that.
"I suppose it was just a case of f**k the begrudgers!"
You felt you had to regain the county title to rinse it out of your systems?
"Yeah. We felt if we didn't win last year, we'd never get it out of our minds. Winning the county went a big way to closing that door. We were there and we meant business. Nothing was going to stop us last year, no matter what.
"I think it showed in the county final. We just caught Kinvara on an off day. It was their first county final in a long number of years and maybe they had a few jitters. But, no matter if they played out of their skin, we just weren't going to let them win. Because we had a point to prove.
"It was just a thing that we had to do for ourselves and for Portumna as a whole."
Did it feel a long year, carrying that sense of grievance with ye?
"Well, we weren't talking about it. It was just in the back of our minds. Everybody knew. The first meeting we had after losing the county final, we drew a line under it. We just said 'That's it. It's over.' And that was only a couple of weeks after that county final. We didn't want to be carrying on with it.
"But the inquiry just made things worse. I mean we got more fines than Loughrea did. We were made scapegoats. We were made out to be whingers."
The controversy raised the issue of protection for talented players. How much is that a concern for you or your family? Was there ever a point after that when you just thought 'If that's what I have to put up with, it's just not worth it?'
"Well this was a thing that I never thought would happen in any hurling game, no matter what else went on. Never dreamt it would. I don't think anyone ever dreamt it would."
Getting a boot down in the face?
"Yeah. I think it was hardest for my parents. My father said 'That's it, it happened. Get on with it.' For my mother though, like any mother looking out for her kids, I think it hurt her more than it hurt me. To see me with my face glued up. Scars on my face for life.
"Like I didn't mind too much myself. It was just a thing that happened."
Can you talk about the influence Ollie has had on your career?
"Well, I think every one of my brothers has been an influence
on me in a different way.
"When I was young, I didn't really get to the matches because there were too many of us. Six lads and one girl. We couldn't all fit in the car.
"I'd be jealous that I couldn't get to the games. But we'd watch the videos that night and I'd be slagging them. Frankie would take the frees and Davy the sideline cuts. I copied their techniques basically. I remember one day in Loughrea, Davy taking a sideline cut on the 21 and it landing down on the far 21. I was in awe of it when I saw it on the video and it was something that I practiced for a while.
"Before Ivan played in goal, he used play outfield and take the frees as well. With Ollie, I just wanted to be like him playing for Galway. Then there was Seamus. He would always be relaxed, never getting uptight before matches. Kind of the joker of the family. Maybe I took a certain calmness from him. I think Ollie did too.
"To be honest, I looked up to every one of them. Deirdre too."
What's your first memory of Ollie hurling for Galway?
"I suppose the '94 All-Ireland minor final against Cork. I was actually after getting my first helmet, a blue Mycro. And Ollie's helmet broke a week or two before the final, so he took mine and kept it for the next six or seven years.
"I remember being down the back of the Hogan Stand afterwards, in the corner where the dressing-rooms were. Ollie got man-of-the-match that day."
In 2006, you were bidding to equal Jimmy Doyle's record of winning three All-Ireland minor medals in a row. How frustrating was it, as captain, to lose to Tipperary in that final?
"I honestly wasn't thinking about it in those terms. To me, the three-in-a-row thing wasn't in my mind. Our performance was what frustrated me that day. We didn't do ourselves justice. Tipperary blew us off the pitch basically."
Last year, how close were you to going in with the seniors?
"I was tempted alright. At any age, you're always tempted to join your county's senior set-up. People say I took a year out but, realistically, I didn't. I was still hurling with the U-21s, still playing club. I mean the U-21s did practically the same amount of training all year as the seniors. I had been planning on going to America for a while, but it didn't materialise because of club commitments.
"And I wanted to give the U-21s a go. Lucky enough I stayed around too, because we won the All-Ireland.
"So, it was there in my mind. But I had said a year before that I wouldn't. People around Ireland seemed to think that it was because of the county final that Ollie and I weren't going in. And that's 100pc wrong. I mean there's a paper clipping at home, taken from an AIB launch before the 2006 county semi-final in which I said I wouldn't be going in with Galway the following year.
"That was forgotten because of the controversy that blew up. Now people think that we're back in only because Portumna won the county again. That's not the case.
"Ollie just felt that he didn't have the hunger. But you could see it in him with the club this year that he had that extra bit of energy. That drive was back in him. I mean he's in better shape now than he was five years ago. I think that lay-off of a summer did him the world of good. He has recharged his batteries and he's flying again."
Yet, after Galway lost to Kilkenny last August, it was common to hear people say 'Maybe if Joe Canning was there...'
"Look, to me, Galway were only about the width of a ball from winning that game. I remember Noel Hickey flicking the ball away from, I think, Damien Hayes. If Noel missed that flick, I think Galway would have got a goal. Instead the ball was driven down the pitch and Kilkenny got a goal.
"People say that Galway weren't fit enough. But a goal in those circumstance in the last few minutes can drain you by 20-30pc. People don't seem to realise that. Mentally more so than physically. Then Kilkenny got another goal and the scoreline just didn't reflect the game."
But was any part of you aching to be on the pitch?
"No. I was over in Brussels that day at a cousin's stag. It was the first time I had gotten away with all five brothers. All the guys from Portumna were there as well. I had made my decision. I was four or five years hurling non-stop and I just wanted a break. Some people said that I was selfish for not going in, that I was just thinking of myself and not Galway hurling. They say I was a loss that day.
"But I had never hurled with the Galway seniors, so how was I a loss? I didn't let it get to me. And, being honest, I didn't feel that I'd have made any difference to Galway that day. Noel Hickey made the difference with that flick."
Ger Loughnane made certain comments in the spring of '07, describing the Fitzgibbon Cup as 'a Mickey Mouse competition', observing that you were 'way off the pace' for senior inter-county hurling and suggesting that it was 'very doubtful' if you had what it took to be a senior inter-county hurler. How did you respond to those?
"Well, you could look at it two ways. One, that he wanted me to prove to him that I was able to hurl senior inter-county. Or, two, that I might take umbrage and say 'f**k you, I'm not coming in if you're saying that about me. I could have looked at it two ways.
"I didn't let it get to me. He said what he said and it was never spoken about."
He hasn't spoken to you about it since you joined the senior panel?
"No, we haven't spoken about it."
Do you think it was pure mischief on his part, then?
"Yeah, but that's the type of guy that he is. I don't know. He hasn't said anything about it to me this year yet and I hope he doesn't either. You have to get on with it. If you let comments like that bog you down, you shouldn't be hurling. You shouldn't be in the spotlight. People have freedom of speech. They can say what they like and you just have to accept that.
"And that's what I did. I just took it on the chin. There are more serious things in life than someone making a couple of comments."
Were you nervous making your senior inter-county debut then in the National League semi-final against Cork?
"Of course I was. But I knew all the guys. There's 15 of us there now that were on the U-21s last year. And there was a lot of guys I had played Fitzgibbon with. Then the 'older' lads were mainly only 24 or 25. I'd know them all from when Ollie was previously involved.
"So I wasn't going into unknown territory. But I was just a little nervous as to how I'd find the pace of the game and how I'd adapt to it. It took me about 15 minutes. I felt, if I panicked, I'd lose the run of myself. I'd be too uptight.
"Luckily enough, I got a point and just settled into it. A few balls fell right for me."
Did you find it much of a step-up in terms of intensity?
"It's way faster, the intensity is up another 20-30pc from club hurling. You're trying to match and beat the best hurlers from other counties. You have to relax."
You seemed to take a while to settle then into the final against Tipp?
"That's true. A lot of people forget about the first 45 minutes. I don't think I touched three balls in that time. It was a disaster really. The first Galway goal came off me, but that was the first ball I won that day. Paul Curran and Eamonn Buckley were roasting me. But there wasn't great ball coming in either.
"I think, looking back, most Galway hurlers will tell you that we were useless in that League final, yet we only lost by two points. I got credit after for having a good game, but if you look over the whole game, I was useless. I know that myself."
Even though you scored a spectacular goal in the second half?
"I wasn't happy with myself. And I know I've got to be better than that against Antrim now."
Do you feel you have to be hard on yourself all the time to achieve?
"I'm probably my own harshest critic. Some days I'd be travelling back in the car with Ollie after a game and I'll hardly open my mouth. He'll say 'What's up with you?' And I'll just say 'I was feckin useless today.' He might argue the point, but I wouldn't be happy.
"Mistakes I made would be playing on my mind. If I'm going to improve, I have to take that attitude. You have to look for that extra bit. I think I've learnt a lot from Ollie in that respect."
Twenty years on from Galway's last senior All-Ireland, how would you describe the mood in the county now?
"Every year, you hear people saying the same thing. 'This is the year we'll win the All-Ireland'. I've heard that for the last five, six, seven years. The problem is Galway can be great one day and bad the next. And, suddenly, it's 'Galway are going nowhere!' Like in 2005, beating Kilkenny, then losing the final to Cork.
"And that gets back onto the players. It can be very negative in Galway. But we're still a very young side. I think the average age is 23 or 24. There's a lot of guys just learning their trade at senior.
"So, we're just hoping to get a good run this year and it starts with Antrim in Casement Park. It's massive for us, a very dangerous game. In hurling, if you're at 98pc, you're in trouble. You have to approach every game as if it's Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final. You have to be at 100pc"
Finally, what is your greatest ambition?
"Probably that I'm not able to take a summer holiday for the next 10 years (laughing). I don't really have any interests outside hurling. I read the odd book. Like I read the Jonny Wilkinson book there recently, but I'd be only reading that to see what I could get out of it that might help my hurling.
"Hurling is my life. It's what I do."