Wednesday 21 March 2018

Martin Breheny: Is Joe Canning one of the greatest hurlers never to win an All-Ireland?

The Portumna man has won All-Ireland medals at minor, U-21 and club level but is he destined to live with the frustration of being one of the greatest hurlers never to land the big senior prize? MARTIN BREHENY examines his career.

Joe Canning has had to cope with high expectations from an early age, but time is starting to run out if the Portumna star wants to win an All-Ireland SHC medal with Galway. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Joe Canning has had to cope with high expectations from an early age, but time is starting to run out if the Portumna star wants to win an All-Ireland SHC medal with Galway. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Joe Canning stopped off to talk to the media, looking as relaxed as if he were among his pals in Portumna. He smiled and engaged with journalists, describing the game he had finished minutes earlier as "no different to any other I played".

He paused for a second before continuing. "You have to approach every game as if it's your last."

It's the sort of comment usually uttered by a player coming near the end of his career, which definitely wasn't the case with Canning. In fact, he had just completed his first senior game for Galway, scoring 0-4 against Cork in an Allianz League semi-final.

His manager was impressed by the debut.

"The amazing thing about Joe is that he is so calm. Before the game, it was like he was going out to play a challenge match for Portumna. People are always looking at what he scored but look at what he does off the ball and how he brings others into the game. It's the unselfishness and the vision he has," said Ger Loughnane.

And so, at the age of 19, began the senior inter-county career of a talent which had been flagged as something special for several years. The county that produced John Connolly and Joe Cooney had its third JC, who was being looked on as the Messiah that would lead them from an All-Ireland wilderness which was then extending towards 20 years.

A week after his debut, Canning was back in the Gaelic Grounds, this time scoring 1-6 in the League final against Tipperary. The goal was a splendid effort as he gathered the ball in a standing position about 40 metres out, powered through the gears, with defenders looking as if they being towed by a force of nature, before he angled a precision drive past Brendan Cummins.

Vincent Hogan described it thus in this paper: "A mixture of strength, balance and dexterity. Canning's skill was goosebump calibre." Galway still lost, 3-18 to 3-16.

Nine years to the week from that game, Canning returns to the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow for another League final test with Tipperary. He's a different man now, shaped by almost a decade of high profile and even higher expectations.

The awards and rewards have been many and varied, but something very important is missing: an All-Ireland senior medal. He's still only 28 but the perceived certainty of All-Ireland success, which surrounded him in 2008 no longer prevails.

Year after year inevitably started with high hopes and ended in deep frustration. The main source of disappointment has varied from as early as Round 1 of the qualifiers to the All-Ireland final itself, territory they visited three times in the last five years, only to find Kilkenny impossible to dislodge.

As the clocks tick on towards 29 years without an All-Ireland win, the question arises whether Canning is destined to become one of the best hurlers never to win the big prize, something that seemed improbable when he started out.

Galway's previous JCs - Connolly and Cooney - both won All-Ireland titles, the former towards the end of his illustrious days, the latter in the earlier years of a brilliant career.

Comparing the trio is an interesting pastime among Galway hurling people, even if it's always going to be impossible to reach a definitive judgment on the pecking order.

It's made all the more difficult by the changes in the way hurling is played, plus the radically altered All-Ireland format, which allows for second chances which were not available in Connolly's or Cooney's time. Still, there's an interesting wider angle to the debate, one which applies important context to the judgement on Canning.

There are those who claim that despite his heavily laden box of skills, he hasn't always done enough to match Connolly and Cooney at their best. Others counter by pointing to those around Canning as the reason why Galway are still waiting for an All-Ireland after all these years.

Connolly hurled for Galway through much of the barren '60s, the resurgent '70s and into glorious breakthrough year in 1980. For a long time, he was the main maroon-and-white beacon on dark days before becoming an influential figure in the turnaround of the mid-70s.

By the time Galway won the All-Ireland title for the first time in 57 years, he had men like PJ Molloy, Noel Lane, Bernie Forde, Frank Burke and his own brother, Joe alongside him in the forward line.

When Cooney looked around the dressing-room in 1987-88, he saw Martin Naughton, Eanna Ryan, Brendan Lynskey, 'Hopper' McGrath, Lane, Molloy (1987) and Anthony Cunningham sharpening their attacking claws.

Galway were defensively solid too, anchored by ultra-durable types who thrived in the hard arts of the game.

Canning would have been a star act on both of those Galway teams, without carrying anything like the high levels of responsibility that were loaded on to him from the day he first joined the senior panel.

The harsh truth for Galway is that they haven't provided him with the required supports. Other than Canning, few of the squad from recent times would have got on the 1980 or 1987-88 teams.

Since Canning debuted in 2008, he is one of only four Galway forwards to have won an All-Star. He picked up three awards (2008, '09, '12); his Portumna colleague, Damien Hayes took two (2010, '12) while David Burke ('12) and Cathal Mannion ('5) have one each. Burke has also been twice chosen at midfield, where he is far more effective.

Those stats, while obviously not totally reliable, still give a fair indicator of the environment in which Canning has operated. That may be changing now as there's evidence to suggest that Galway's attacking strength is increasing.

It looked in his early days as if he would drag Galway behind him. The inspirational goal against Tipperary in the 2008 League final was followed three months later by an even more powerful image of the young powerhouse fetching the ball over Diarmuid O'Sullivan, boring past him with an unstoppable surge and whipping the ball to the net against Cork in a qualifier.

Not many forwards did that to 'The Rock' over the years and certainly none as young as Canning. He scored 2-12 (1-6 from open play) that July evening in Thurles but, as against Tipp earlier on, Galway lost by two points.

They joined the Leinster Championship a year later, a move that placed them on a similar footing to the other All-Ireland contenders, which increased hopes that things would be different.

Indeed, there appeared to be a certain symbolism to their arrival in Leinster when, in the early stages of the 2009 semi-final against Kilkenny in Tullamore, Canning whizzed past no less a defender than JJ Delaney and scored a stunning goal.

He finished with 2-9 but, yet again, his high yield wasn't enough for Galway, who lost by four points.

In many ways, that has been the story of Canning's career. The stunning goals, the high returns, the distraction of rivals defences, which should have created openings for colleagues, have all been there in glorious abundance without getting the rewards they deserved.

There has been another side too - days when he was peripheral to the action - leaving you wondering how such a gifted player couldn't impose himself to a greater degree.

Henry Shefflin nearly always seemed to manage that, but then he was surrounded by players of exceptional quality right through his career.

In 1999, he came into a Kilkenny attack which included DJ Carey, John Power, John Hoyne and Charlie Carter and, as the years went on, he was joined at various stages by such quality acts as Eddie Brennan, Martin Comerford, 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, Eoin Larkin, Aidan Fogarty, Richie Power, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh.

Shefflin's reputation as one of the best-ever hurlers is well-deserved but the Ballyhale man was also fortunate to be surrounded by so much class, a luxury Canning has not enjoyed.

Also, the responsibility of being the main man has been with him for so long that it must weigh heavily at times. Ever since he started with the Galway minor team as a 15-year-old, he had been living under the spotlight, expected to deliver at match-winning levels and criticised when he didn't.


If he scores a large haul - as is often the case - critics will point out that much of it came from frees, often ignoring the fact that very often he earned the opportunity by being fouled.

His role in the team has altered significantly too over the years. The days when he was sited at the edge of the square, ready to terrorise full-backs, appear to be over largely over, replaced by a more liberated brief further out.

How much of an input to the change he has had is uncertain but it's unlikely to have happened if he opposed it.

Opposition are certainly pleased to see him further out the field as it leaves him far less likely to score goals.

Still, with the likes of Conor Whelan, Conor Cooney and Cathal Mannion operating close to the opposition goal and Canning working further out, Galway's attacking potential is obvious.

Canning suffered a serious hamstring/tendon injury in last year's All-Ireland semi-final and was told by the medics after an operation that it could be up to eight months before he was back to full power. Happily, his recovery was quicker than that.

Tomorrow he bids for his second League medal, which would be a nice prize, even if it can never come close to September glory.

Earlier this year, he talked of the disappointment over the absence of a Liam MacCarthy Cup from his haul, especially since Galway put themselves in a position to win on a few occasions

"It seems to be the story for the last few years. It's been that close, but I suppose it's better to be nearly there than be very far away," he said.

"We've had a couple of shots at it and it hasn't worked out but you are always thinking you are good enough, because you wouldn't be doing it if you didn't think deep down that you were good enough.

"You see other guys winning so many - Kilkenny winning ten, 12, in the last number of years, and you're kind of thinking: 'If I only got one I'd be happy enough'.

It still might happen.

Irish Independent

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