There’s something they don’t tell you about winning your first All-Ireland, and over the past eight months Joe Canning has come to realise it.
At the time, the walk up the Hogan steps can feel like a full stop, a neat conclusion to a lifetime of work, but in truth it’s just a comma that catapults you on to the next phase. The euphoria fades, the pats on the back subside and, once enough people have laid their hands on Liam MacCarthy, the question is asked about his return visit.
When a team so publicly and deservedly celebrates a once-in-a-generation achievement, as Galway did, but muddles through the following league campaign, it’s inevitable some will nod their heads, furrow their brows and wonder about the half-life of their hangover.
Did those celebrations drag on too long?
“No, not really,” says Canning. “That was only our fifth ever All-Ireland, so we needed to celebrate that as much as we could and include as many people as we could, especially kids and schools, to get the next generation to have somebody to look up to and inspire them to wear the Galway jersey.
Truth is, no-one really knows where Galway stand ahead of this Saturday’s championship opener after a spring campaign where they beat Antrim, Offaly, Laois, and Dublin but got turned over by Limerick and Wexford.
Preparations were certainly put on the back-burner a little longer than usual, but to draw a causative line between that and what happened went down in the league is wide of the mark, says Canning.
“People say we were playing catch-up, but realistically the league wasn’t a priority last year either, but we ended up winning it. It wasn’t a priority this year, but we would have taken it if we progressed. At the end of the day, championship is your number one and, when we heard the draw, Offaly was our main target.”
Galway will be 1-33 favourites when they run out at Tullamore’s O’Connor Park on Saturday evening, after which they’ll have a fortnight to fine-tune before welcoming Kilkenny to Pearse Stadium. A week later, they’re away to Wexford before rounding out the round-robin series at home to Dublin.
A hectic month, then, but Canning is a fan of the revised championship format.
They only need to finish in the top three to still be pucking ball come July, but does that ease the pressure of opening night?
“No, not at all, because if you lose one game you’re under serious pressure to progress. You want to win every game, and anyone who tells any different is telling lies. The same pressure is on to try get a result, but it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a bit of bruiser.”
Micheál Donoghue has retained all the players that carried them to glory last year, and like others, the Galway manager experimented more than a hippy at Woodstock during the league campaign.
“We used 32, 33 players to get a look at guys, which is always good,” says Canning. “Obviously, we didn’t win and we didn’t have the league trophy this year, but that’s the same as any other year. The championship is what it’s all about.”
Canning has been the crux of the Galway attack since the year dot, but much as his talents are a gift he makes no secret of the times they’ve felt like a burden.
By contrast, he thinks he wasn’t all great last year, though history will record a very different judgment of the 2017 Hurler of the Year, who scored the winning point in the All-Ireland to end a 29-year drought for the Tribesmen, but Canning has never wanted it to be about him.
“You play a team sport; it is not about any one individual,” he says. “You can have any one player playing out of their skin, but if the rest of the team isn’t playing, what good is it? You always put pressure on yourself to deliver and be the best that you can be. There is no point in looking back on 2017 and just being content with it.”
Eight months on, he still hasn’t watched the full game, and nor does he intend to.
“It’s well forgotten about at this stage, well over,” he says, but in Galway, he only has to train his eyes on nearby fields to see the effect of that day.
As a kid, Canning’s goal was never about carrying the mantle for his county.
“Mostly I just wanted to be better than my brothers. That was just being the youngest in the family and being jealous of what they were doing.”
Things are different now, and he knows the peril of winning one is the pressure to win another, though he has made a career out of flourishing in such heat.
“It’s pressure every day. You have that target on your back and people will want to bring you back down to earth in a big way. There’s the expectation that you need to back it up with another one.”
- Joe Canning was speaking at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy summer of hurling.
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