The retirement of Joe Canning, one of hurling’s finest talents, adds to an intense period for the most beautiful game.
He counts as one of the rarest ones, a prodigy of prodigies. Born on October 11, 1988, Canning got marked down for greatness almost before he could ride a bicycle. Like Kilkenny’s James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, like Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly, his name was a hushed rumour long before he became a presence.
All virtuosos in the making follow the same path. Canning’s initial opponent entered from fable, the treacherous knight named Sir Expectation.
A friend of mine, Craughwell native, knows the family. Michael recalls being at Galway senior training in 2001, a time when Ollie Canning, older brother by 12 years, operated as the game’s finest corner back. His youngest sibling watched from the sideline, a joust with that knight still before the horizon.
Michael ran into the two of them on the way out. “You’re going well, Ollie,” he said. “Ah, not too bad,” Canning nodded, before reaching over to pat his brother’s shoulder and hand him a lance. “But this is the man. He’ll be the best of us all.”
By 2008, Sir Expectation lay sprawled. Joe Canning shot 2-12 in a qualifier tie with Cork, taking 1-5 from play. At that juncture, he had won three All-Ireland titles at Minor and U21. Home front likewise glittered, after two Galway senior finals and two club All-Irelands (with the tyro deemed man of the match, at 17, in 2006’s decider against Newtownshandrum).
That day against Cork, Canning’s third senior outing for Galway, he showcased near unique talents. Not many hurlers are both gladiator and surgeon. Wearing blue scrubs and sandals, one attacker went to business.
The 11th minute saw him fetch a ball above Diarmuid O’Sullivan, left of goal. Canning barrelled inside, Cork’s full-back unmerciful in tackle, before bouncing back outside, finding a notch of space. He flung himself and whacked the ball, one-handed, to the net.
Audacity married virtuosity. Dónal Óg Cusack, enraged, ran out and protested about steps, like someone who had doubted Moses.
That score illustrated Canning’s wondrous splice of force and finesse. Game intelligence sent him down O’Sullivan’s inside line first, committing a righthanded defender’s hurl to his right side. The spin back out therefore meant O’Sullivan’s hurl was fixed where it could not attempt a block.
But the wristwork and the timing and the strength involved in goaling that possession, one-handed, while off the ground… Beyond even fable’s charts.
Joe Canning’s sheer physical strength was a concealed weapon. No marker, whatever his success, ever intimidated him. Portumna were defeated by Ballyhale Shamrocks, my native club, in 2010’s club All-Ireland final. Aidan Cummins, our full back and himself a powerful man, told me afterwards that Canning was by far the strongest hurler he ever encountered.
That day in 2008, his second goal arrived via a penalty. Martin Coleman, a righthanded goalkeeper, had just come on following Cusack’s dismissal. Three men were on the line. The penalty, venomously struck, whizzed past Coleman’s body on his right side.
I rarely saw a penalty hit better or with more intelligence. Canning knew Coleman would not be able to get the bás of his hurl twisted round quickly enough from default backhand position. I infer that the young Joe Canning thought about hurling, the intimate increments of advantage, in the way the young Mike Tyson thought about boxing.
Canning, along with TJ Reid, is the finest penalty taker I have seen. Anyone can hit a rising drive. But how many hurlers can roll their wrists, sending the sliotar low by getting over it? Hardly anyone. Canning has a repertoire of penalties akin to the late Severiano Ballesteros’ repertoire of shots from the rough, the same cold audacious brilliance.
Local comparisons? Another day’s effort. Joe Canning as regards hurling’s other 21st century luminaries? All in time. The man departing graced the most beautiful game. Enough said, for the day in it.
A count remains one form of assessment. If so, he took the full set. There came at least one All-Ireland in the three major grades: Senior (2017), U21 (2007), Minor (2004, 2005).
Add three NHL titles (2010, 2017, 2021) and three Leinster titles (2012, 2017, 2018). The highest gongs likewise fell his way: Hurler of the Year (2017), Young Hurler of the Year (2008), five All Stars (2008, 2009, 2012, 2017, 2018). The absence of a Railway Cup is no longer relevant.
Home ground saw five Galway senior victories (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013) and four club All-Ireland victories (2006, 2008, 2009, 2013). The deep involvement of four Canning brothers in Portumna’s triumphs will leave those days the sweetest hours. Their youngest one now departs having made good a brother’s prediction.
And then some.