Saturday Interview - Joe Canning
Galway sharpshooter Joe Canning talks to David Kelly about moving on from the team's All-Ireland final heartache, increased expectations and the potential of the Tribesmen's emerging young talent
JUST a boy standing over a ball. Nothing else is real at this precise moment except the moment itself. Joe Canning was once such a boy. Trying to master the skills of the wondrous ancient art.
Now he is master. Now he is assuming the role of teacher. The lesson is the sideline cut, a Canning calling card.
"Ready position. Eyes on the ball. Lock! Plant your foot. Strike!"
A slew of sliotars scatter to the four corners of the back pitch in O'Loughlin Gaels' pitch. His diminutive charges on this Opel Skills day mingle frustration at their inability to accurately deliver.
"I was the same as any other kid," says Canning later, incongruously surrounded by pictures of stripey legends in the O'Loughlin's clubhouse, with Nowlan Park a puck away across the road.
"I was trying to do everything as best I could straight away. It does take time. That's being a kid. You want to be the best at everything. It just doesn't happen. It's growing up. It's becoming who you are."
Canning has not always been afforded the space to enjoy his own journey. The lavishness of his gifts and the comic strip achievements of his youth accelerated impatient demands.
By the age of 21, he had played in three All-Ireland minor finals, one All-Ireland U-21, four All-Ireland Clubs, six county and two Fitzgibbon Cup finals.
He seemed to exemplify a new era of Galway senior hurling even if the time BC – Before Canning – was as awash with underachievement as the present.
We speak a week after Galway's dethronement as Leinster champions by a rampant Dublin, the maroon marooned once again on a big day when expectancy has seemed to suffocate instead of liberate.
On the table lies a copy of the Irish Independent, wherein Cyril Farrell, coach of Galway's only three All-Ireland titles in modern times, asks of each beaten player to ask themselves: "Did I do enough to make things happen?"
A world-weary sigh precedes the response.
"I'm more worried about the team collectively than my own... if you can help the team in any way, that's what it's all about," he says.
"It's not about one or two guys playing well, you don't win games like that. If 20 guys can play average and win, it's better than three or four guys playing well and the team losing.
"It's everybody in it together. We're going back to the drawing board but we're not a bad team overnight. We're disappointed with how we played against Dublin but we're looking forward to the quarter-final and progressing on from there."
Therein lies the dilemma. With Galway, it seems, it is either a Joe show or a no show.
In the first half against Dublin, as their forwards lacked the rangy, often manic movement that had stunned Kilkenny in the decider a year earlier, one radio commentator suggested that Canning should remain rooted to the '40' as a central pivot.
A few megahertz to the right of the dial, a voice implored Anthony Cunningham to shift him post-haste into the edge of the square.
Having cleaned out Dublin from centre-forward a year earlier, he nearly turns this game with a goal when belatedly pushed into full-forward.
But there is only one Joe Canning. Bi-location is a gift not yet bestowed on the mighty Portumna ace.
"It's not up to me," he says when asked where he would prefer to be posted. "Whatever way the management see fit is up to them. It doesn't matter to me where I play as long as I'm helping out.
"If you want to play in a certain position, you become selfish. The way the game has gone, you have to be adaptable. When I grew up, I played full-forward all the way up. It's different now. The game is different and I'm happy with that."
Selfishness, despite an average points haul in and around the 0-10 mark, is anathema to this 24-year-old. Ask him if he remains unfulfilled as a Galway hurler and his answer is at once a question.
"As a team? We are," he says. "As a team, we can be a lot better than what we are. The potential is there. We're very young. Last year we had 19 U-21s, four of the lads in the forwards are younger than I am."
For too long, Canning has been asked to deliver for his county without too many asking whether they have delivered enough for Canning.
It is not an exasperation which he shares. It is hardly one he would ever reveal if he did. This is the life he has chosen. It is not about how better or worse it is for him, how richer or poorer it makes him feel.
"Nobody in the future will remember what I've won, they will remember what Galway won. That's what it's all about. It's about the team.
"If I wanted to win things on my own, I would have played golf or tennis. If I wanted individual rewards, I would have played an individual sport. That way it would be all about me. I play a team sport because I want to win with my team. That's the be all and end all.
"The best moments in my life so far have been the two or three minutes after winning big games. When you're out on the field with the lads that you train with. It's almost like a second family to you. You spend so much time together that you become so attached, almost like brothers. That's what it's all about."
And yet for all the endless evenings pucking the ball down the fields for the faithful sheepdog to retrieve, or the gable end that served its purpose as a ready-made handball alley, there could easily have been a fork in the road.
Sometimes, when the torrents of abuse are at their most vicious and sickening, when the weight of freighting so much baggage around with scant enjoyment tightens his throat, he wonders what his life could have been like had he taken a different route.
It is just as easy to see how this formidable frame may have filled out a rugby jersey and how easily the talents could have been transferred.
It forms the idlest of momentary digressions from reality.
"I'd be telling a lie if I didn't think about what if I had stayed playing rugby? I don't know if I would have made it, that's for others to say. I'd have loved to have tried it," he says.
"You'd be jealous of the professional players, getting up in the morning to prepare and then go training, having the evenings off, whereas we're professionals playing an amateur sport. We've to work eight to five and then go training, you might only have an hour a day to yourself. And you're getting nothing for it.
"It's nice when we're away for a camp, you get a taste for the professional life. It makes you want to keep going at it. You'd love to have that set-up and be professional alright."
The invisible ring of security it provides would attract him.
"There's a different mentality towards GAA players compared to professional players. I don't know where it stems from. It even boils down to how we approach games or on the street after games. It's hard to fathom how people think that way, treating us like professionals even though we're amateurs.
"It's hard to deal with it, especially when you've had a bad game and the knives are out. I suppose it's easier for us to contact them, easier for them to talk to us as opposed to the professionals who are a bit more protected."
He's often been tempted to lash out. But he is his mother's son – temperate and tolerant.
"You have to take a deep breath. Different people deal with it in different ways. I'd rather not make a scene out of it. I'd go through it in my own head. You'd try not to meet those people again.
"That's the way it is. You get lots of abuse. You just have to laugh it off. What good is going to come from it if you say something back? You'll end up looking like a fool. You have to bite your lip and walk on. Save your dignity."
The pity of it all is that it makes it harder to enjoy the good days.
"Yeah... if you enjoy it too much, you'll lose sight of what's ahead of you. You can't be content at what you've achieved.
"Within 70 minutes, the person who complimented you the last day will be saying bad things. You have to take it all with a pinch of salt.
"When you're around for a while, you know the guys who are genuine and who are not. I'd rather talk to guys who don't compliment me after a win because you know they're grounded.
"A lot of the guys who say, 'You're great', it's for them really. It's to make them feel good down the shop or in the pub. 'Jaysus I met yer man and he was flying'. The next week they'd be slagging you.
"But that's life. It would be a very sad world if we didn't have those people. They add to the enjoyment of it all. You become aware that people are saying things to you that they don't really mean.
"My calmness? It probably comes from my mother. It wouldn't be from my father, he's the opposite end of it! I don't like to get too uptight.
"Everything comes, you can't control things coming down the line. You take life as it comes. There's certain things that you can plan for. I can't stand people who worry about small things and lose sight of the big picture."
Canning's composure was ruffled last year when a perfectly honest assessment of one of so many incidents of referee baiting in the drawn All-Ireland final was presented as if Shefflin was the greatest larcenist since Dick Turpin.
Hurling's most celebrated players joked about it later. At the time, the media storm blighted the build-up to the replay, setting in motion embarrassing hand-wringing up and down the country.
Canning was mortified when so many assumed he had played the man, not the ball. Did it startle him? The question remains unanswered for so long it is as if he hasn't grasped it.
"It did give me a jolt," he eventually replies. "Obviously you'd be careful now of what you'd say. That stuff was totally blown out of proportion. It was crazy really what happened.
"But you know the guys who blew it out of proportion and you won't be talking to them, let's put it like that.
"It was very unfair what they portrayed me to be. There were lots of guys who weren't even at the interview who wrote things about it.
"You learn from it. There was nobody more sorry about it than me. It didn't hurt anybody else only me the way it was portrayed.
"I'll still be honest in what I'll say. I'll give interviews but I'll have to watch what I'm going to say. I don't believe anything I said at the time was wrong."
So why should it hurt you then?
"Because the media portrayed it to be me as a bad person, it fell back in my face. They basically caused a controversy out of nothing. I was on the news and getting calls all over the place.
"Henry knew exactly what the story was. He didn't find anything in it. It's over now, it's forgotten about, it's not to be brought up again. Everybody missed the point of what I was saying."
HE HATES dragging up the past for all that. He still hasn't watched last year's All-Ireland final. He still hasn't seen the late dramatic frees that, as eloquently as Kipling's famous maxim, encapsulated the life of Joe Canning, Galway hurler.
He shoots, he misses, a county rages and accuses. He shoots, he scores, a county rejoices and acclaims.
"There's a saying that if you keep looking back, you'll trip over the stone in front of you," he says. "It was just a free. Okay, there was a lot more pressure riding on it, but it was just a free.
"I was more disappointed missing the first one. But if I'd gotten that, we may never have got the chance to get the second one. You can't look back and wonder. It happened for a reason."
Even if he had the time or inclination to look behind him, he'd likely miss what's in front of him.
He hasn't time to worry about the reality of pressure and expectation. And if he does, he just remembers what it was like to be that small boy standing over a ball. The only thing that's real.
The alternative interview
Who do you follow on Twitter?
I find Colm Tobin to be funny.
What was the last sports event you paid into?
Clare v Cork in the Munster final.
If you had the opportunity to attend any sports event in the world, what would it be?
Red Bull cliff diving in Aran. Again. It was unbelievable, one of the best events I've ever been at.
Favourite sports star outside the GAA?
Taste in music?
Anything really, probably Kodaline at the moment. They're a good young Irish band.
Taste in books?
Anything sports related. The best sports book I ever read was Andre Agassi's 'Open.' 'Moneyball' was good. Ronan O'Gara's autobiography was excellent, I love the way he speaks his mind.
If you could invite three people to dinner, who would they be?
Ronan O'Gara, Shane Lowry and John Bishop. They would be funny guys to get together!