Wednesday 25 April 2018

'In big games, big moments are defined by your big players' - Galway boss lauds Joe Canning

Donoghue hails Canning winner as star forward plays down stunning sideline strike

Joe Canning of Galway celebrates after scoring the winning point of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning of Galway celebrates after scoring the winning point of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

'It could have gone anywhere," he told us, a virtuoso dismissing his work as the tug of a slot machine. Joe Canning was fooling nobody.

With that elegant, arcing swing from the toes of the Cusack Stand, he didn't just win an extraordinary game for Galway, he re-stated a lifelong truth that movement ought never be confused with action.

It happened in a dark blur, everybody around him turning middle-aged with worry. It happened with 74 minutes on the clock and referee Barry Kelly commanding the rapt attention of 68,184 utterly breathless souls.

It happened as a snarling, three-strong Tipperary cavalry descended upon him with all the bad intention of a ghetto gang smelling easy money.

They arrived just as his hips began to roll, human wrecking-balls determined to corrupt his swing. From hand to hurl, how much time had he got? A second? Less than that.

Yet Canning, an essay in absolute coolness, nailed it. He did it as only the great ones can, those with a talent above statistic. Through genius. Simple. Cold. Unblinking.

Supplicating

As the sliotar cleared the Hill end goal, the sound of Galway's supplicating cries turned to something close to laughter.

How else to respond to something so wildly glorious and absurdly brazen to win a game for the ages? They say that, in sport, there's no substitute for a lucky break, but that's not strictly true. Greatness sometimes trumps everything, reducing all else to small print.

"There's pressure every day you go out," the Portumna man smiled, people crowding around him with disbelieving smiles. "You try to embrace it and you try to get a performance. The hop of a ball went against us last year, it went with us this time."

So Galway won a game of almost inexpressible intensity through an act so graceful and eloquent, it seemed to belong to opera. And Canning, a gift to the game this past decade, yet perversely one of its most cheaply derided figures too, put his signature on a day that set the Croker concrete trembling.

He scored Galway's last five points when every one was a virtual short story, three of them from play. In doing so, he helped Galway drag themselves out from underneath layers of historical worry.

"When you come out of a game like that, winning by a point… when he gets a ball in that position, you know there's a great chance that it's going to go over," smiled Micheál Donoghue. "In big games like that, big moments are defined by your big players. And he really stood up to the mark on it."

It was put to Donoghue that Galway had taken a little time to get Canning to the pitch of the contest and he did not argue. In fact, when just short of the half hour, Joe went into Kelly's book for a high challenge on Padraic Maher, it seemed the act of a man losing patience with the day.

"That was a challenge for us," agreed Donoghue. "How do we get him into the game? In the first half, it was probably by-passing him a bit. In a game like that, you want your big players on the ball. Because there was a lot of ball going in in the first half, we moved him inside… but it just seemed that wherever he was, it wasn't going to.

"So in the second half, it was just, bring him back out to midfield try and go through the lines and get him back into the game again."

Galway have had a bellyful of just amateur shrinks theorising about their capacity to lose these kind of games in almost sedate fashion.

Actually, there's been a fair weight of prose dedicated to their ridicule in recent times, a lot of it built on the spurious notion that if primitive stuff like running them around sand gallops couldn't rewrite their DNA, nothing could.

Too often, criticism has curdled into parody, the idea gathering traction that at the business end of a tight game, Galway are maybe inclined to advertise their worries all too clearly.

Yet, in three consecutive Championship meetings with Tipp now, a single point has separated the teams. And twice that point has been in Galway's favour.

"Looking back at the last two years, you're just hoping that it doesn't turn into a shoot-out again," said Donoghue. "Because, when it turns into that, it's just cat and mouse, up and down the field and you don't know what way it's going to go.

"I remember looking up at the clock at one stage and it was 64 minutes and I was just going 'Where did the time go?'."

The game was full of imperfections and yet, after the dreary ennui of Saturday's football quarter-finals, it ignited before our eyes like a magnesium flare.

The greasy surface and squalling breeze made life difficult for the players and, in many ways, Tipp's goal pretty much captured the general sense of flux. It came from Seamus Callanan mis-hitting an effort for a point so luridly, he might have been on the deck of a trawler in a force nine gale.

The Galway defence had time to cope, but didn't.

For Donoghue, that moment served to italicise a sense that Tipp were winning too many breaks around his half-back line.

"The goal was probably a defensive mistake but, in fairness, John McGrath stuck it well," he reflected. "It kept them in the game. Just our work-rate and tackle-count we thought was a bit down and we challenged them to up it (at half-time)."

The trick with all provincial winners is managing the gap to August and, for Galway, that was a guessing game.

Intensity

As Donoghue explained, they were on a training camp in Fota Island the day of the quarter-finals and played an internal game that morning, the challenge being to "get to the intensity of what we were going to see later in Pairc Ui Chaoimh." On this evidence, his men met that challenge.

Their relationship with Tipp is a curious one now. On occasion, Tipp find themselves depicted just the next floor up from malingerers, their story bearing a vaguely louche undertow, the sense of men with almost unrivalled history in the business of self-sabotage.

If they are guilty of a fraction of the decadent living rumour hints at, the wonder is they can even get out of bed to join us for these gatherings.

Much of it, of course, is nonsense. But Michael Ryan went home last night knowing full well the corner-back's name about to be tossed cheaply in his direction at the end of a game decided, essentially, by inches.

"Tipp deserve huge credit," agreed Donoghue. "We bring that out in each other and it's just one blow after another…"

But now, the drumbeat about '88 resumes and Galway must prove themselves ready to close out history.

Irish Independent

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