WHEN Galway finally ended a 29-year wait for an All-Ireland title in 2017, it was fitting that Joe Canning struck the last ball – a sideline cut – as the final whistle blew.
Canning fell to his knees in front of the Cusack Stand. Derek Forde, one of Galway’s Maor Caman’s, immediately jumped on top of Canning. The two men rolled around on the ground for a few seconds but as soon as Canning got up, he was enveloped by Padraic Mannion and John Hanbury.
Canning was the natural focal point, for everyone. In the one minute immediately after the game, as the TV cameras flashed around the ground trying to capture the incredible explosion of emotion from a multitude of different images in Croke Park, the camera returned to Canning on six occasions, taking up close to 40 seconds of that one minute.
His story was the main sub-plot. During 10 years in a Galway jersey, the fear had grown that one of the greatest players of all time would end his inter-county career without an All-Ireland medal. Galway were the story but, that day, hurling people everywhere rejoiced for Canning.
It was fitting that in his final game for Galway last Saturday that Canning surpassed Henry Shefflin to become the leading all-time championship scorer. Bowing out when Galway failed to win a championship match for the first time in 30 years wasn’t the way Canning would have wanted it to end but nobody doubts his greatness and place in the pantheon of hurling giants.
The spotlight had been on Canning since he was a child star in his mid-teens. Before Canning made his senior debut, no other player had triggered as much debate as to their anticipated ascension to senior level. He had a skill level rarely seen in young players, but he also had a steel fist under the velvet glove.
Canning already had two All-Ireland minor medals before he’d even reached the age of 17 but in the 2005 county final against Loughrea, he came out to the half-forward line and grabbing the game by the throat for Portumna. Canning scored 1-11 that afternoon and set up Damien Hayes’ goal. In Portumna’s 10-game run to the 2006 All-Ireland title, Canning bagged 12-82.
He didn’t play for Galway in 2007 but when Canning arrived in 2008, he exploded in the way everyone had expected him to, scoring 2-12 out of 2-15 in an All-Ireland qualifier against Cork, ending the season as a nailed-on All-Star. It was such a sensational debut that the expectation Canning set was impossible to manage.
For years, Galway’s hopes hinged so much on Canning that they needed him everywhere and anywhere, and to be everything else and more in between. His outlandish talents mostly met those demands but the standards by which he was judged were so high that they were merciless.
Galway were so dependent on his genius that a disproportionate level of responsibility and blame was often attached to Canning’s performances when Galway didn’t get the job done.
His displays in All-Ireland finals in the first half of his career – in 2012 and 2015 – weren’t as good as what Galway needed them to be, but the dynamic was also changing as Canning’s career progressed. Brilliant young forwards emerged in Galway and Canning no longer had to carry such an over-bearing load on his own. Galway also didn’t need to switch him around as often, which further lifted some more of the pressure off Canning.
His game flourished. Canning finished the 2017 season as Hurler-of-the-Year. His form was even better in 2018 when Galway returned to the final but lost to Limerick.
Canning almost single-handedly dragged Galway back into that contest as the clock ticked towards the 70th minute and the match seemed over. He had a chance to bring that All-Ireland final to a replay but his last-ditch free from a huge distance just dropped short. Canning couldn’t have done any more.
He was injured for most of the 2019 season, when Galway didn’t make it through the Round Robin in Leinster, and his final big game in Croke Park was last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Limerick.
Again, Canning left a huge mark that afternoon, when scoring four points from sideline cuts, which was an individual record for a championship match. That took Canning’s championship tally to 28 points from sideline cuts, 19 ahead of his nearest challenger now, Austin Gleeson on 9.
Canning changed the attitude towards sideline cuts, but he set a unique standard in everything he did on the field. He carried pressure on his shoulders throughout his career but there have been very few players who arrived with such a precocious reputation and carried that pressure throughout as well as Canning did.
Canning made such a huge contribution to the game that the reaction to his retirement this week was adorned with the type of bouquets and glorious tributes only reserved for the truly great players.
“We have had so many great hurlers that it’s very hard to separate them,” said Liam Griffin on ‘’ on Newstalk on Wednesday evening.
Great players are expected to deliver in the way Canning always did. The onus always was on Canning to make a difference, to provide that something special when the need was greatest. When it really mattered, it was Canning who invariably always mattered the most.
When Galway were chasing down a huge lead last Saturday, Canning provided both assists for Jason Flynn goals.
Absolute class right to the very end.