'They say the first time is always the best'
Maiden title of 'O6 kicked off golden era for Portumna – now Canning eyes return to the top
OLLIE Canning has experienced many notable 'firsts' in his club career with Portumna GAA club, but none better than the historic breakthrough in 2006 when the team from South-East Galway became All-Ireland champions.
The roots of that success were laid three years earlier when a first Galway senior championship win broadened the club's horizons beyond county level.
An All-Ireland title? Why not? It took some time, but finally the dream became reality on St Patrick's Day 2006 when Portumna defeated Cork's Newtownshandrum.
What a day that was, as huge celebrations erupted around the town and the nearby parishes to hail the conquering heroes.
Canning will never forget the build-up to the final and the aftermath.
Qualifying for the decider was, to an extent, a journey into the unknown, but Canning and the rest of the team rode the wave of passion all the way to the steps of the Hogan Stand where they were presented with the Tommy Moore Cup.
The Portumna skipper recalls that there was no chance of the pre-game hype inducing a nervous paralysis.
"Enthusiasm and excitement takes over," insists Canning. "It nearly brings you along. The supporters and the local town or village, you're just swept along and that can be a great thing as well.
"That can maybe make up for the lack of experience you have.
"You don't have any fears because you haven't experienced any bad things about the day, so, for us, our first time up there was so exciting for everybody and the enthusiasm and the atmosphere that was in the camp, it's very hard to find that again.
"They say the first time is always the best and I firmly believe that."
Some clubs find their appetite for glory and success sated the first time they dine at the top table, but that never happened with Portumna. Their drive and talent ensured that the years 2008 and 2009 copper-fastened the club's reputation as the dominant force on the national club hurling scene.
Two in a row – could they claim the hat-trick in 2010? Turned out the answer was 'no' as Ballyhale Shamrocks raised the banner aloft on behalf of Kilkenny.
The battle for honours in Galway subsequently became a tougher proposition all round, as Clarinbridge, Gort, and St Thomas' emerged to win the next three Galway championships, with Clarinbridge and St Thomas' joining Portumna on the All-Ireland honours list.
To outsiders, Portumna had fallen by the wayside. But, within the club, the passion for further success was still burning brightly.
Results didn't go their way for a few seasons, but this was a giant that was not so much sleeping as taking a power nap until it was time to awaken and re-assert its authority.
"It was a couple of barren years as regards Portumna, but that's life," says Canning.
"Galway is a very competitive championship. You have other teams coming along, younger teams, real enthusiastic, with good players. It's going to happen eventually.
"You can't dominate for an extended period of time. You have a couple of years and you try and win as much as you can while you're there."
Canning's career is testimony to that philosophy as regards club hurling. He has three All-Irelands and six county senior titles to his name and he's still eager for more at the ripe old age of 37.
At county level, he started out as a forward, but later gained a reputation as a top quality defender.
The year 2000 was Canning's first stint in the backs and he showed his prowess in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, holding in-form Charlie Carter to a single point.
Carter was held, but the Cats got the better of the Tribesmen that day. A year later Galway took a step further and reached the Liam MacCarthy decider, only to lose against Tipperary.
Four years later it was Cork's turn to disappoint Canning and prevent him adding a senior All-Ireland medal to his minor (1994), and U-21 (1996) mementoes.
Four All Stars were earned, as well as two National League and Inter-provincial honours.
"Unfortunately for Galway it didn't go well for us. We got to two finals, in 2001 and 2005. Maybe we didn't get a few breaks on the day but ultimately Cork were too good at the time, and the Tipperary team played better than us on the day in 2001," he said.
Regrets, some at least, are inevitable, but Canning brings a level of honesty and perspective to that aspect of his career.
"That's it. There is no point in crying about it. The reality of the situation is that if you come up against superior opposition and unfortunately it is not your time, so you move on. You do the best that you can while you are there," he said.
The current Portumna campaign has brought a new spark to Canning as he moved from his defensive slot to the forwards. Brother Joe has been operating out around midfield and so far, so good.
"It's a different role with the club for Joe this year," says Canning. "I know he takes all the frees for us, but he uses the ball very well and in certain games, with Joe in the middle of the field, it gives you a good confidence that with any ball around there, that, hopefully, Portumna can come out on top.
"Even myself moving out of the full-back line has probably freshened up the team. It keeps everybody on their toes.
"If guys are pigeon-holed and in the same position for a long time, it goes a bit stale and it's good to freshen things up," says Canning.
Frank Canning, older brother of Ollie and Joe, is the team manager, and the extended Canning clan are backing the brothers to bring back the All-Ireland title to Portumna.
Carlow's pride, Mount Leinster Rangers, stand between Portumna and their ambitions, and for Ollie, they represent a serious threat.
"They're here on merit," he says. "People are saying to us 'you're favourites,' but as a team, we just have to prepare as best we can.
"Mount Leinster Rangers have had some fantastic victories along the way.
"They've beaten teams who were potential All-Ireland contenders and then they beat Loughiel, the All-Ireland champions of two seasons ago.
"They're here on merit and they're not going to be worried about Portumna.
"Our attitude is we're just going to look after ourselves on the day. We're going to prepare as best we can and after that, the team that performs well on the day and minimises mistakes, that's the team that's going to win the match."