Learning to cope with life after Joe: Canning is a huge presence on and off the pitch, but he's not going to be around forever
A bird never flew on one wing, an old friend used to say, explaining his fondness for a double measure of Black Bush. Can a Galway hurling team soar to the heights they've grown accustomed to without the towering presence of Joe Canning? With a reputation so lofty that he has his own Facebook appreciation page, Canning has the status of a deity. He must be with them in spirit for the time being as they strive to find a way through Leinster in his absence.
The dependency is based not just on his talents, which are beyond dispute, but also a remarkably consistent run of appearances before now, until he was struck down during the League semifinal defeat to Waterford in March. He made his debut in 2008 in the Leinster senior hurling championship and of the 58 championship games the county has played in that time, he's missed only three.
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He didn't play against Westmeath in 2012 due to a shoulder injury, he was rested for the Dublin game last year with Galway already through and he has already missed the Carlow match this season. Today will see new ground broken for Galway and Canning when they face into a second successive championship match without their anchor figure. That will soon become three, then four, with some hope that he might make it back for the Leinster final if Galway qualify.
And Wexford's visit to Salthill today, coming ten weeks after they were there for a League quarter-final, recalls one of Canning's exemplary shows of the year. It was also his last match to finish before suffering a groin injury, leading to an operation and the current lay-off. Against Wexford, when his team won by ten points, Canning delivered 0-15, all but one of them from dead balls. He wounded Wexford at every turn, scoring from a variety of distances and angles. It is to Wexford's relief that today he is a mere spectator.
And for Galway? The level of dependence is too great to not be worried about his loss on days like this. "All I'd say is that Joe is only missed when he's gone," says the former Galway hurler Cathal Moore. "You would hear lads shouting and criticising and talking about his best position and this, that and the other but it is not until he gets injured for an extensive period of time that you see the contribution he has made over the years. He has been a great servant to Galway and he will continue to be when he's back. Look, he has come back from injury before and come back very well. I am sure he will come back again."
Canning is believed to be back in light training and seeing a specialist next week. His brother Ollie has given the Leinster final on June 30 as the most optimistic return date. The injury has placed greater responsibility on others to show leadership. Since moving to centre forward permanently in 2017 Canning's work-rate has shot up and his tackle count is unrivalled. That year his influence inspired Galway to a first All-Ireland in 29 years.
In 2012, after Anthony Cunningham took over as manager, Canning had a spell on the sidelines during which he missed the opening League game against Dublin in Salthill and the opening Championship game against Westmeath. In the League game against Dublin, who were reigning champions, Galway started eight under 21s who helped the county to win the All-Ireland at the grade the previous year under Cunningham's care. In Canning's absence Niall Burke made his bow at centre forward and scored 0-10, including five points from placed balls. Burke, after a fitful senior career since then, also deputised on frees for Canning in the recent win over Carlow.
Canning returned for a relegation play-off in Croke Park against Dublin in 2012, coming on during the match which ended in a draw after extra time. He was in full cry when they won the replay in Tullamore. In February he had damaged his AC joint during LIT's win over GMIT in the Fitzgibbon Cup and after the League finished suffered a recurrence of the same injury in a challenge match.
That meant he missed a Championship game for the first time, against Westmeath, in the Leinster quarter-final. But he was back for the semi-final against Offaly and powered Galway to their first ever Leinster title the same summer, and a place in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny that went to a second day. Despite a long and packed career, with lots of wear and tear, Galway haven't had to cope without him for long.
Canning turned 30 last October and remains irreplaceable. "I suppose all through the League this year he showed great leadership, almost single-handedly dragging them through matches, particularly in that League semi-final when he got injured," say Moore. "He got injured carrying the fight to Waterford. So he is a loss in every way.
"He is a loss on frees. We don't have a free taker as good as him. In terms of his contribution he doesn't depend on his frees. He will always have chipped in with scores from play. They will miss him but I suppose it is a real test of leadership elsewhere. That presence he has, that whole presence he has on and off the field, I suppose he brings so much and he hasn't been missing that often.
"But that thing of Joe being missing creates opportunities for others knocking on the door. Maybe lads who haven't nailed down a place, the likes of Niall Burke."
After that successful career launch against Dublin back in 2011, Burke hasn't had a fluent journey. Injury and loss of form have contributed to various stalls. Moore believes the experience of helping his club, Oranmore-Maree, to win an All-Ireland intermediate title will make him a better player and a more confident one. But he can never be Joe Canning.
"Whoever is picked in place of him, you can't put all that responsibility on them," says Moore. "There is only one Joe Canning. When he is gone (into retirement) we are going to find that out. Kilkenny only had one Henry Shefflin; ok TJ Reid isn't a bad substitute, but he's a different kind of player too, he's not Henry Shefflin. You have those unique players that come along now and then. (Patrick) Horgan is developing into that for Cork."
In the game against Wexford in mid-March, Canning kept Galway in the game in the opening half with stunning marksmanship and a willingness to cover the hard yards. Without him, Galway need to knuckle down and work harder to compensate for the loss. "It is about the collective," says Moore. "In fairness, in the All-Ireland winning year (2017) the collective worked. In fairness to Joe, he can provide the individual stuff but that year they worked very well as a team.
"It definitely leaves a challenge in terms of who is going to be creative because in the last few years he has also been a great creator, moving more and more out the field. The year they won the All-Ireland he was further back than ever so there is room to play that role, maybe that is the role of Cathal Mannion. Cathal Mannion has been playing a lot in midfield during the League."
Canning has scored in all 55 Championship games he has played in, and been held scoreless from play on just five occasions. He remains on course to catch Shefflin as the all-time record scorer in the Championship, currently just 61 points adrift. His advancing age and current injury lay-off has raised thoughts of life after he finishes. And how Galway will manage.
"We'd all be hoping in Galway that that won't happen soon," says Moore. "Because it will certainly be a change for Galway supporters going to matches where he is not playing because a lot of the talk revolves around him in terms of all the things he has done over the time. We will be putting off that day for as long as possible. Just as Kilkenny put it off with Shefflin. We'll be hoping it's a good few years off."
Beyond the scores and the sensational moments, the impact of his presence to the rest of the team is unquantifiable. Moore recognises this. "I'd never played in a team where he was in the dressing room - all I could compare it to is when I went into a dressing room Joe Cooney was there; Joe senior. He was held in the same regard. When you can look across and see Joe Cooney it gives a great lift to any group of players. The things they can do in training and playing. You just take great inspiration from it. You can only imagine it would be the same for the others who have played with Joe. Whether it is David Burke who came up through the ages with him. Or whether it's a new fella coming in the door like a Sean Loftus or a Brian Concannon."
For the younger players trying to establish themselves in the current Galway team, Canning's presence will be missed on the field but doubtlessly will be nearer the squad as he continues his rehab. "Galway have a better chance of winning the All-Ireland if they have him back, no doubt about that, but the challenge is to still be in the Championship by the time he's available," as Moore puts the current predicament. The medical projection for recovery was 14-16 weeks, with nine having already passed. By the time of the Leinster final it will have been 14 weeks. But if Canning is back by then, will Galway be in the Leinster final, with Wexford gunning for them today and tough away figures to come in Kilkenny and Dublin?
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