Tribal leader still striving for improvement
Galway talisman Joe Canning works hard to be as good as he is, writes Marie Crowe
When Galway or Portumna are playing, it's impossible to resist the urge to seek out Joe Canning and spend time just following his movement round the pitch.
Like Lionel Messi with Barcelona, Colm Cooper with Kerry, Usain Bolt in any sprint or Tiger Woods on a golf course, he can be captivating.
However, there is a level of expectation associated with the ultra-talented, and along with this comes a fascination and a fear that losing sight of them could mean missing out on something special.
They are heroes and idols for many, superhuman almost. But every now and then when injury strikes or they miss an easy shot or simply tell a story about how they feel, they are suddenly human again.
Listening last week to Joe Canning talk about the challenges he has had to overcome to be the hurler and athlete he is was one of those moments.
Although it seems that his skill and ability come so easily to him, Canning is adamant that there is always something for him to improve on. He is currently working on getting faster; through hard work he constantly strives to be a better player.
But it was his recollection of the terrace abuse he suffered over his weight that showed how Canning is just like other young sportspeople juggling everyday life with sport.
"I got lots of abuse, I still get abuse," says Canning. "I remember a couple of years ago I got lots of abuse from the terrace for one half of a match."
And was it because you were overweight?
"Yeah, I was and let's call a spade a spade, that's basically what it was about."
Did it bother you?
"It did but that was my own fault. I could hear it, I try to block it out but you can hear it still. It can get in your head but that is part and parcel of it. It's fine, you get on with it, it's not a thing that I was bullied. I'm not looking for sympathy over it. I was what I was and people said it to me. I knew myself and I accepted it, I've forgotten about it, it is no big deal."
Canning now cuts a slimmer frame than he has in previous seasons. He is one of those players who togs out bigger on the pitch and is often told as much. But he concedes that his weight is something that he has worked on, and is still working on; he still feels he has a bit more to lose. In fact, since Canning joined the senior panel six years ago the biggest change he has made to his preparation and training has been his diet.
"I am a lot slimmer now, diet was a huge thing for me. For a while I had injuries and I couldn't train, I'd put on weight like that. I could walk past a chipper and I'd put on a stone whereas Ollie (Canning) wouldn't put anything on. It's just different mechanics and genes for different people. I have learned to control and curtail that as best I can. Being injury-free has helped as well because I can push myself a lot harder."
Everything that Canning does is with Galway hurling in mind and ultimately winning an All-Ireland senior title. He is the captain this year and although an ongoing hamstring injury – sustained while playing for his club Portumna – is keeping him from starting today's Allianz Hurling League semi-final against Kilkenny he will be sprung from the bench like he was against Limerick in the quarter-final last month.
For Canning, filling the role as leader of the Tribesmen always appeared to be on the cards considering his overall contribution to the team and his relationship with his team-mates. Yet while it's an honour for Canning to be captain, it doesn't mean that he likes being the main man.
"I hate it. If I wanted to be that kind of a person, I'd play golf or tennis and I'd be on my own. I play team sport for a reason, I play because I love training with others, playing with others and being part of a team. I'm not interested in personal accolades or getting my name in the paper. That doesn't interest me but it seems to interest others to talk about it.
"It's a perception and in Ireland perception is a very powerful thing, people think you are something more than you are. We have a huge family; when I'm at home with my nephews and nieces and I'm just uncle Joe or Joseph as the sister and mother call me. Anyone who knows me, I hope thinks the same; anyway I don't like that perception of me, and I know it is out there but it is wrong."
Although his brother Ollie is on the Hurling Review Committee, Canning won't be suggesting any changes to the game. He is happy with the shape it is in right now and doesn't see any need for black cards.
"I just don't want to see the game ruined by adding in rules that would cause controversy and hassle. Anything can happen on the hurling pitch; for example when you go out and look at Tony Kelly you don't know what he's going to do. He has a bundle of tricks and that is what you want to see. You don't want to see guys being pulled for frees the whole time. You want to make it all about the game not about the rules."
But Canning would like to see the back of referee assessors; he would prefer it if the men with the whistles were left to their own devices.
"They are human beings, they are good hurling people; let them use their common sense, let them do their jobs, trust them to do their jobs. I think having people sitting in the stand telling them what to do the next day they go out is putting too much pressure on them. I think, let them off and let them ref it as they see it."
He would also like to see Galway compete in the Leinster championship at underage level. Even if that means they win fewer All-Irelands at minor and under 21.
The additional games and added competition would help bring players through and serve them well at senior level.
This time last year his friend and former LIT team-mate Seán Collins told him that Clare would win the All-Ireland title and Tony Kelly would be player of the year.
He didn't take Collins too seriously at the time but he acknowledges that they deserved it; they worked hard and stuck with their game plan. Canning has yet to win a Celtic Cross medal of his own but you get the sense he's close to figuring out how to make it happen.
Joe Canning is an Opel GAA Ambassador
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