Thursday 18 October 2018

'Our character was questioned, I thought...we didn't get a lot of respect' - Galway's Joe Canning hits back at critics

Joe Canning comes under pressure from Clare’s Michael O’Malley, with Galway team-mate David Burke (right) in support. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Canning comes under pressure from Clare’s Michael O’Malley, with Galway team-mate David Burke (right) in support. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Donal Moloney lurched towards the dug-out rail, palm to his face, Clare's run through this smouldering summer over.

A few hands reached towards him, but they were tentative, sheepish offerings. Some aborted their efforts completely, swinging away as if remembering they'd got some sudden other urgent business to tend to. Moloney's expression brought to mind a weathered Burgess Meredith, towel over his shoulder, after Apollo Creed has just edged a split decision over Rocky Balboa.

Because the champions were still standing here, still upright having taken the kind of haymakers that would have loosened tooth fillings.

So all around Moloney now, a great maroon river had begun breaking its banks, swamping the Galway players in a ceremony of plain gratitude. They'd come here looking to reclaim vanished composure but, just maybe, left having done something even more precious than that.

This wasn't a game won on the back of conspicuous technical, tactical or even physical advantages in the end. It was one rescued by character. By a stark, bloody-minded refusal to give in.

So many elements to Galway's play kept deviating here, but not the seed of anger. That was always breathing, always palpable. From first whistle, their physicality came pitched at a heat that left Clare looking like men trying to sprint in a mangrove swamp.

Joseph Cooney is congratulated by manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joseph Cooney is congratulated by manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Colm Galvin was back on sentry duty in front of his full-back line, but Galway just kept going around or over him. In doing so, they made us all wonder about the wisdom of over-thinking these puzzles. Without a sweeper, Clare fell nine points behind the first day. Here, they did precisely the same with one in situ.

Ultimately, Galway disregarded their shape then. They just went out and set a fire..

And, yet, Clare again kept on coming. Those second-half goals from Shane O'Donnell and Peter Duggan meant that every last molecule of Galway resilience would be stress-tested here and the champions' lead was down to a single point when Aron Shanagher had that moving statue moment in front of the Killinan goal.

His first effort ricocheted up off James Skehill, the second snapped back off a post that, in Clare minds, will forever reside in roughly the same latitudes as Hell.

This happened, after all, in the 68th minute and, seconds later, Joe Canning was nailing a sublime sideline 'cut' from the toes of the Ryan Stand. In the context of the game, that score told us everything about the Portumna man, about his appetite for the fight.

"We showed great character," he would reflect in the tunnel after. "We were only behind once overall in both matches I think. And we didn't get a lot of respect during the week I think from media and such. Our character was questioned, I thought.

Clare’s Aron Shanagher (right) finds his route to goal stopped by David Burke. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Clare’s Aron Shanagher (right) finds his route to goal stopped by David Burke. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"People were saying we didn't perform and stuff like that. But only being behind once in an All-Ireland semi-final over two games just shows the character we have."

That character might have been exposed to another stretch of extra-time but, with business slipping over the 70-minute mark, Duggan inexplicably all but shanked a relatively simple free that would have drawn Clare level. Johnny Glynn promptly set up Niall Burke to make it a two-point game and, though Duggan narrowed the margin to one again, Tony Kelly's 75th minute delivery towards Shanagher flew over the Shannon man's head and harmlessly out for Clare's 19th and most ruinous wide.

Another epic was settled then, one between teams separated by the width of a communion wafer.

For Moloney, there could be no consolation in defeat, just the wounded understanding that Clare had, again, gone toe-to-toe with the best team in the country and looked capable of winning. But that self-sabotage of another slow start?

It wasn't quite how he read those opening 21 minutes, at the end of which Johnny Glynn's goal had pushed Galway 1-9 to 0-3 ahead.

"It's not a slow start, it's nothing to do with a slow start," he told us. "It is magnificent play by Galway, the way they come out of the blocks."

His co-manager, Gerry O'Connor, offered an insight into the specifics of what it was that Galway did. "Look, they're a hugely physical team so you can't just puck the ball down on their half-back line or their midfielders," he explained. "So we had to come up with a plan to bypass their aerial dominance.

"And it didn't go very well for the first 15 or 20 minutes, but we got things together again at half-time and, look it... ah Jesus, I'm just after coming out of that dressing-room and they're just devastated. They fully expected that this was going to be their day. And they played for most of that game like it was, particularly in that second-half."

That they did, but this Galway team keeps proving itself the very antithesis of its past. Denied the presence of Gearoid McInerney at centre-back, they still looked to have far too much savvy in defence for a Banner attack compromised by the decision to go with a sweeper. Clare looked panicked and loose-fingered through those early flurries.

A moment: In the 20th minute, Donal Tuohy went short with a puck-out to Pat O'Connor, who went short again to fellow corner-back, Jack Browne. The Ballyea man then bombed one down the left flank in search of John Conlon or O'Donnell, running a loop, only for the sliotar to fizz harmlessly over the sideline.

That was the tenor of it for Clare. There and then they were seconds away from the concession of Glynn's goal and yet, somehow, would still come back into it. In fact, Glynn's goal became Galway's last score of the half, a faint murmur in the air that Clare might actually have figured out, once again, how to get back under the champions' skin.

So had they left it behind in the end?

"Look, if you shoot 17 or 18 wides, they say things like that," acknowledged Moloney. "I think we've always looked at this championship, that the most consistent team will win through. The fly-by-nights don't survive in this and fair play to Galway, they have been consistent over two seasons now. I don't think we left it behind. I think they're a great team."

They're proving it too, now 13 Championship games unbeaten and closing in on that back-to-back status that has eluded every county bar Kilkenny and Cork since Galway last achieved it in '88.

"Our boys showed massive heart and resilience to come back," said Micheál Donoghue. "Those qualities are never doubted with them."

He was saying that for a reason too, re-iterating the sense that this is a group determined to distance themselves from every lazy cliché and preconception that stalked their past. They're making a damn good fist of it too.

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