You can find a remarkable TV show on the internet featuring the Canning, Lynch, Smith and Hayes brothers of Portumna as their club plotted their way to three All-Ireland titles in four years around the end of the last decade.
In it, you see a 20-year-old Joe Canning and his bleached hair, flaking sliotars up against the corrugated iron shed on his family farm, honing his skills with a bit of target practice on an old car tyre.
By the end of the ‘Pride of the Parish’ show, Canning had accumulated a minor All-Ireland medal, four Galway county titles and three club All-Irelands. For years, older brother Ollie was the standout hurler from the parish, but the murmurs of ‘wait till you see the younger fella’ started long before Joe first represented Galway.
Joe Canning always had a target on his back.
The programme features a club championship game between Portumna and Clarinbridge in 2008 where Joe comes in for the usual tough treatment, and despite the win for his team, he is annoyed afterwards.
“I should be over the moon because we won the game,” he says. “There is a line where you need fair play. We can’t take it every day we go out. We’ll be retired by the time we’re 27 or 28 with broken legs and broken fingers and everything and nothing said about it.”
Canning is now 27 – not yet retired – and he is still as dedicated to ending Galway’s 28-year wait for an All-Ireland title. But hurling is no longer the only concern of the boy born a month after Conor Hayes last led Galway to glory. For the first time in his life Canning’s putting himself and his future first.
“When you are in school and college and you are only coming up, it’s hurling, hurling, hurling. But when you get to a stage when you are closer to 30 than 20, you think of different things. You are at a different stage of your life and that’s obviously where I’m at the moment.
“You have to put things into perspective a lot more and you can’t be living the young lad’s life, just going with the flow and everything is a breeze. You get your priorities straight and try and build a future for hopefully your family and your business in years to come,” said Canning.
In the aftermath of last year’s All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny Canning took a good look at himself.
He decided that three years living and working in Dublin and the regular commute back to Galway for training, had taken its toll on his body. He’s back living in Oranmore now, a few miles from Galway’s usual base in Athenry, a short spin home to the farm in Gortanumera, and less than an hour from his new business venture in Limerick, a Thai restaurant called ‘Camile’ at Parkway Retail Park, which opened recently.
Making the switch back to familiar surroundings has given him an extra hour or two each day; time not spent traversing the M6 can be redirected into work, family and hurling.
“It is sometimes hard to get a break, but it’s part and parcel of it. It’s good to keep busy as well. I find I get tired from doing nothing. I like to be busy and trying to sort out my business and looking after my future is the most important thing for me now.
“Because hurling is only a hobby at the end of the day. It’s something that doesn’t last forever and won’t put the bread and butter on the table. You have to look after your own life first and foremost and try and build up a good business that way first.”
Despite protestations to the contrary, you get the feeling Canning will never sit easy without a few months in Liam MacCarthy’s company. He carried the weight of that missed free against Kilkenny in 2012 for some time, and despite a solid game against Brian Cody’s side last September there has been plenty of fingers pointed his way and towards his teammates since.
“Criticism is fine and a lot of it is in-house as well – it’s coming from people in Galway. And that’s fine, that’s part and parcel of sport. People give their opinions. You respect the genuine ones, but there is a lot of people that just give it to make themselves feel good.
“When you don’t win every year, people get a bit fed up about it. But we have only won four All-Irelands in Galway – ever. It’d be different if we had won 30 or 40 All-Irelands over the years and had such a drought. So the expectation is a bit mad I feel. But at the same time we like to embrace it as well and try and prove people wrong if we can at all.
“Times are a bit different now too though. If you look at Tony Keady, one of the legends of Galway hurling, he only played 14 championship games for Galway and five of them were All-Ireland finals.
“That’s a crazy stat, but now it’s a different kettle of fish. It’s a lot harder to win an All-Ireland than it was back in the 80s,” said Canning, as he prepares for his 40th championship game with Galway tomorrow at Croke Park.
He is certainly well schooled on the history of Galway hurling, so it won’t have escaped Canning’s eye that Galway have lost in the last four championship at the hands of the eventual winners. Such chances don’t come along too often, but he remains hopeful this will be their year.
“I don’t think we are a million miles away from winning it. A lot of the players have been very successful, be it at underage level or club level. A lot of the guys have won nearly everything there is to win apart from a senior medal. That’s the only medal out of everything that I don’t have yet.
“I am 27 now though, and when you see guys retiring at 29 or 30 years of age, you kind of think there is not too many years left. But I’m not even thinking about anything else, I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t believe that we did have a chance every year of winning or getting to an All-Ireland final.
“It’s just this year, it doesn’t even come into my mind what will happen in six months time or 12 months’ time. You have to be in the moment, and that’s where I am.”
If Galway are to finally claim a fifth All-Ireland in the coming years, Canning knows deep down, that’ll be the year that they beat Kilkenny twice. Buoyed by their win in the Leinster final, 2012 was as close at they got. An early goal from Canning helped Galway into a five-point half-time lead in that year’s All-Ireland final, but they still needed his added-time free to force a replay, which ended sourly.
In last year’s decider, Canning fired a goal Cú Chulainn would be proud of in the second minute, but again, a second-half capitulation shattered their hopes and dreams. It’s something that has blighted many teams against the best.
“That 2012 Leinster final was one of those days when everything went right for us. But we still lost the second-half that day to them too. The first half was good but the second wasn’t great.
“The last day against Dublin, Kilkenny really impressed. In fairness Dublin stayed with them for long periods of the first half. I was down at the match and their work-rate in the second-half just blew Dublin away. I think they hit 1-8 they scored without reply. It was pretty impressive, but that’s the challenge.
“That spell after half-time is important, but every part is important against them. You have to give yourself a chance to get to that stage and still be in it at that time.
“Since 2012 a lot of the guys have gone, there is a good changeover in personnel there now. It’s a different story for both teams this time round. Nobody can go on forever I suppose.”
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