Joe Canning – 2008 Sports Highlight

January 12, 2009

The day the boy warrior
Canning’s star sang

REMEMBER your Yeats.

It wasn’t a great hurling year by any means. It won’t linger the way 2007 does.

Kilkenny were deserved All-Ireland champions, but their obliteration of Waterford in the final had a sheen of efficiency and ruthlessness that you could admire but hardly love.

It didn’t have, for instance, the
poetry of a boy warrior in Thurles, performing heroics as the summer sun began to set.

The great WB slips a passing reference to “golden-thighed Pythagoras” into Among School Children, a
glittering phrase that stays bright for you long after the fog of your
schooldays disperses. It suggests power, skill and riches in one quick image, and if the by-heart stanzas of 20 years ago weren’t what we had in mind on that late July evening in Thurles,
immortal comparison soon was.

It was the game in which Joe
Canning announced his arrival, and golden didn’t seem treasured enough a comparison for him.

Beforehand there were questions. Canning impressed in Galway’s run to the league final. Having blithely cut sidelines over the bar in Croke Park as a minor, he proved against Cork in a league clash in Limerick that pitch
dimensions are the same for minor and senior.

The flight path of one sideline cut, taken from the shadow of the covered stand in the second half, was extraordinary: it wandered off-course initially before settling on a pitiless trajectory directly over the Cork crossbar.

It also reconfigured the rules,
signalling to every other county that a sideline in their own half against
Galway was a likely score conceded.

There had been a goal against
Tipperary in the league final — with his hurley fully extended, Canning beat Brendan Cummins while relying totally on his wrists. Lucky enough, Canning said afterwards. Luck is right.

But Galway manager Ger Loughnane had advised the Portumna teenager to mimic his clubmate Damien Hayes’ industry, and pace has always been present on the Canning charge sheet. Some suggested the trench warfare of Fitzgibbon Cup campaigns doesn’t compare to the
cavalry charges of high summer, and by the time July rolled around Galway had played Laois and Antrim before taking the field against Cork.

In Thurles. Where else can these kinds of questions be asked? Where else can they be answered?

Canning wrote the first chapter of his senior intercounty career in
lightning that night with a tally of 2-12.

His first goal was a triumph of strength, holding off an uncharitable Diarmuid O’Sullivan as he bore down on goal, and of deftness, improvising an emphatic forehand smash to the net.

Just before the break Canning helped to free Alan Kerins near the Cork goal, and when Donal Óg Cusack floored Kerins, the keeper was off for a second yellow card.

Canning took the resultant penalty. Ring always said he aimed at the funkiest player on the line, but
Canning picked the coldest: substitute keeper Martin Coleman was just on the field and the Galwayman stitched the ball past him. Galway, or Joe
Canning, 2-5, Cork 0-9.

After half-time Canning added three of the first points of the second half and Galway were four up.

The pace question didn’t arise. The Galwayman worked at his own speed, creating a force field any time the ball came near him to operate on his own clock: Canning time. He gathered the ball and tilted to lean away from his marker, flexing those golden wrists to put the ball exactly where he wanted.

Even the fact that it was a summer evening added to the occasion. Rather than the harsh spotlight of an afternoon throw-in, there was a memorable tint to proceedings, players bright on one side, facing the sun, and long shadows stretching away on the other.

It wasn’t just about Canning that evening, after all. One observer thought the Cork display was one of the greatest displays he’d ever seen,
isolating a second-half incident when ball came down into Cork’s right corner — right out of the sun — and fell between Cork’s Shane O’Neill and Galway’s Ger Farragher.

Farragher lost the ball in the sun but O’Neill didn’t.

“He caught it and he was snorting like a bull as he was driving forward,” said the observer, one Ger Loughnane.

Ben O’Connor and Joe Deane drove Cork to an improbable lead, but as the effort told, Canning joined brawn to accuracy. He hit three points into the Town End as time ticked away, but Cork survived. Deane won a late, late free out on the left wing and the game was up.

After the final whistle that evening in Thurles, delirious Cork supporters
invaded the field. They had massed on the sidelines and surged on to celebrate victory rather than, as it looked at half-time, line up for a wake. The players in red struggled into the dressing-room area one at a time, and each shook a fist at the crowds hanging over the entrance to the Semple Stadium tunnel, each of them lauded in turn.

For much of that time Canning was out on the field, signing autographs, not all of them for kids in maroon. Then he came back to the stadium tunnel, and he passed us, sweat still rolling down his face. An enterprising photographer took a picture of him trudging to the Galway dressing-room.

The shoulders are slumped and the head is down, while Thor’s hammer drags along the ground. The great melody is still.

But while he was on the field … it was what a star sang, Yeats might have said. What a careless muse heard.

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