How Galway's Joe Canning set bar against his brothers on rise to the top
When Joe Canning was growing up, the only individual accolade he craved was family supremacy, to be the best in the Canning household.
That in itself was a challenge in a house full of brothers with oceans of talent, as opponents of Portumna over the last decade-and-a-half have found out since.
As the youngest, he remembers being "jealous" of what his older siblings were doing and how that fuelled a desire to be as competitive as he could be against them.
Being Hurler of the Year, as he is now after Galway's 2017 clean sweep, was never on his radar and is unlikely to burden him greatly after the weight of expectation that pressed on him for so long without an All-Ireland title, lifted last September.
"When I was growing up, I just wanted to be better than my brothers, that is all I wanted to be better than. It wasn't to be the best in Ireland or anything like that," he recalled.
He recalls that in the context of how close he is to achieving his best, a question put to him that prompted an interesting response at yesterday's launch of the Bord Gáis sponsorship of the All-Ireland Hurling Championship in Dublin.
Canning may have been named the No 1 hurler in 2017 but he has had, by his own admission, better years.
Curiously, it was the first season in his 10 as a Galway senior that he didn't score a championship goal as Galway went their last 300 minutes without once hitting the net.
"To be straight up about it, I thought I had better years in years gone by than I did last year," he acknowledged candidly.
Still, winning the award was "very humbling," he admitted. "Obviously it was nice that the players voted for it. That was a huge thing. It was nice to be the first Galway winner since Tony Keady as well, so that was obviously of huge significance. It was great for the family but dreaming of winning individual awards never comes into it. I was always dreaming of winning an All-Ireland with the team and that's why I play a team sport. If I grew up dreaming of winning a Hurler of the Year, I'd probably play golf or tennis or something where you'd be on your own."
Sometimes the analysis of his form amuses him. In 2015, he was top scorer and second top scorer from play in the championship but that drew some adverse commentary, he recalled.
"It was perceived that it was a bad year for me, even though I was second top scorer from play. I found that kind of funny.
"Probably there was a perception out there in a way that there was a lot of expectation on me. And as I have said before, it probably was that Cork game (2008), scoring 2-12 set standards different to other people. It could just be based on different standards."
With winning an All-Ireland title, the pressure has lifted but a different pressure now applies, even if the game can, perhaps, be enjoyed that little bit more.
"There is no point in looking back on 2017 and just being content with it. I don't think you can ever say, 'I am just going to enjoy this now.' There is always that extra pressure to succeed and win games. It is probably that little monkey off our backs that was there for a while, so maybe that little bit of expectation is gone now, and it can be enjoyed a little bit more.
"It's pressure every day. Like, I don't know who doesn't feel pressure, going in to play a game or to play a championship.
"Maybe if I had won two or three, but I've only won one so there's that expectation and you get that kind of feeling that you've only won one, you need to win a couple to be considered a better team.
"People might say that there's an extra pressure there to back it up in a way. But it's just a different kind of a pressure, just because we didn't win it for 29 years or whatever and people expect us all of a sudden to win it again.
"It's just a little bit different that there's now the expectation that you need to back it up with another one."
The impact of their win last September, he hopes, will manifest in the growth of the game, especially in the city. These days, when he drives in around there and sees kids with hurls in their hands, it makes him smile.
"You see kids out playing hurling, instead of maybe playing soccer, or football, or rugby. And that always puts a smile on my face, especially in the city. Hopefully it will bring a bit of atmosphere to the city now, because for the last number of years, it's kind of been Connacht rugby more so than anything there.
"If we can create something that kids can aspire to, to hopefully someday put on the Galway jersey, all the better for it. Because we'll eventually end up watching them play, and it's all about leaving it in a better place, for them to come on and prosper.
"Even this year gone by, Liam Mellows winning a county championship was a huge thing as well. In every county, that's where the numbers are. And if we can get more people playing, obviously the better for us."
Galway meet Offaly on Saturday evening, the first ever round robin provincial hurling match as the new format is rolled out.
Offaly doubled down against them in the corresponding championship match last year and were one of the four teams to deny them a goal. But Canning feels Offaly will be a little more conventional and is satisfied that Galway can adjust to whatever comes at them again.
"We didn't intend to play sweepers in most of our 2017 games but we ended up having to do it because of the set-up of other teams. We always spoke of just find a way of winning a game, no matter if it was points or goals. It's obviously more difficult if there is more bodies back in front of goals, to obviously get goals. Last year, they had 10 defenders, two sweepers. We are lucky enough. We are able to adjust to whatever way teams set up."
Canning can't gauge where Galway's form is by comparison to 12 months ago, having crashed out at league quarter-final stage this year. "We're fairly happy with how training has gone. We used maybe 32, 33 players during the league to get a look at guys, which is always good. I don't think it's really any different."
Joe Canning was speaking at the launch of the Bord Gáis All-Ireland Hurling Championship sponsorship