Leading from the front
Published 18/06/2010 | 05:00
Eoin Kelly was self deprecating in his recall of Tipperary's escape from Pearse Stadium. It was a 2003 All-Ireland qualifier against Galway which Tipperary had edged by a point and Kelly, by reputation and return their most prolific forward, was asked how it had gone for him personally.
"Not too bad," joked the Mullinahone man. "I managed to hold Ollie Canning to a point!"
In the humour of Kelly's delivery was a glowing admiration for his old sparring partner.
Canning was, of course, a corner-back on that occasion in Salthill, his job to curtail, not to create.
On the day in question, he did both, not for the first time battening the hatches down on Kelly by restricting him to just two points, and also helping himself to one.
For Kelly, there was the cushion of nine other colleagues making the score sheet to take the heat off him.
But once again Canning had been the 'Bermuda Triangle' for a corner-forward coming into a big match with a glowing reputation.
Even now, Kelly continues to identify his nemesis as his most difficult opponent, despite all that Kilkenny and Cork teams of recent vintage have had to throw at him.
Charlie Carter would surely identify with that, his summation of Canning in his autobiography when he named him on his 'dream team' reflecting such admiration.
"The best corner back I ever played on. He had speed, balance and a dash of 'bouldness'. I often wish he had stayed up in the forwards," noted Carter.
When Carter traces the beginning of the end for him as an inter-county hurler, his afternoon spent in the company of Canning in August 2001 is probably a good starting point.
That summer Carter had been on fire, whipping over six points against Offaly in a Leinster semi-final and seven more against Wexford.
In his memoirs he recalls accepting a Player of the Month award for July on the Monday afternoon before that 2001 All-Ireland semi-final with Galway and being pretty sure that, as the picture of the award featured in the following day's newspapers, Canning would be looking on with interest.
The flow of points from Carter was reduced to just a trickle as he stole just one point from Canning on the day that shaped Brian Cody's future thinking as a manager.
Those were the kind of days that forged Canning's reputation as one of the best corner-backs in hurling never to win an All-Ireland medal.
These days he's more likely to be addressed as Joe Canning's older brother, given the rise of the youngest Canning sibling over the last five years.
Of the current genre of inter-county hurlers only Tony Browne and Brendan Cummins have been around longer.
Canning's Galway career dates back to 1996, the same year Sean óg O hAilpin made his bow.
For Noel Lane, Canning's Galway manager in 2001 and 2002, Canning stands the test of time in this or any era as a great corner-back.
"Galway certainly hasn't had a better one. In a team environment the players I played with, Sylvie Linnane and Ollie Kilkenny, were outstanding. But look at the half-back line they had in front of them or the great full-back line they had beside them.
"Ollie hasn't necessarily had that through the years," figures Lane, "and that's why I'd come to to the conclusion that I don't think I've seen a better individual corner-back.
"If we had a few more of him over the last decade we wouldn't be using the word elusive in our chase for an All-Ireland," says Lane. "What I like most about his style of play is his delivery. He doesn't clear it unless he's sure it can be productive. That's what sets him apart from most corner-backs, his meticulous clearance."
He did of course begin his life as an inter-county hurler as a forward, Galway deploying him there off the bench in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Wexford.
Two years earlier he was corner-back on a stellar Galway minor team that beat Cork in an All-Ireland final, but his early induction to senior revolved around attack.
When he smashed a shot off the crossbar in the All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Clare in 1999, the then manager Mattie Murphy was possibly already thinking about restoring him to corner-back.
That didn't happen until the following summer in the months after Galway's league final success over Tipperary when he was right corner-forward. But the move precipitated the beginning of the best part of his career.
Johnny Kelly, Portumna's current manager, is convinced keeping him at corner-back for the club is a matter of playing to their absolute strengths.
"There would be a temptation there to move such a player to the centre, but having Ollie behind our half-back line allows Michael Ryan, our centre back, to play a traditional No 6 game," says Kelly.
To Kelly, there isn't a more intelligent exponent on his landscape and he uses a championship match against Clarinbridge a few years back to illustrate his point.
For Kelly, the match was memorable because it was the first time he had witnessed a sweeper system being used by an opposition in hurling.
"Clarinbridge put Alan Kerins back as a seventh defender. It was the first time I had come across it at this level and it had us. But Ollie was our spare man and he took off on a run from his own position to draw tackles. There was no instruction from the line -- he just did it.
"He beat two men, linked with one of our other players and eventually laid off to Damien Hayes for the goal that broke the game. To appreciate the thought that went into it you really had to see it," recalls Kelly.
Kelly's contention that Canning is 'club first, county second' was never reflected more than in 2007, Ger Loughnane's first season in charge, when both Cannings declined to play for Galway.
Officially Ollie was retired from inter-county hurling and Joe was taking time out to travel, but the fall-out from the embittered 2006 county final against Loughrea and the subsequent Hurling Board probe that shone the spotlight back on Portumna was surely playing out in their respective decisions.
Despite Loughnane's best attempts, Ollie Canning held firm, sticking to the line that had retired at the age of 30.
But when they reclaimed the Galway title later that year, Ollie was captain and used his speech to offload much of the hurt that had been felt by his club in the aftermath of '06.
Since then, they have gone from strength to strength and Ollie's best performances have perhaps been reserved for Portumna days.
When he returned to Galway, Loughnane appointed him captain for a third stint with immediate effect, a reflection of the esteem that they hold him in.
Now 33, the concerns over the erosion of his great pace are obvious. But speed of thought remains, the trademark that has set him apart.