Ever since his arrival on the senior inter-county hurling scene in 2008, Joe Canning has been a consistent topic of discussion. Over the years we have seen an evolution of Canning’s style of play.
His was perhaps one of the most anticipated debuts in the history of the game. A household name in the sport ever before lining out for the Galway seniors, Joe was expected to light up the hurling world.
Since this, he has gone on to become of the most topical hurlers the game has ever seen. With many believing he is one of the greats of the game, just as many are quick to argue otherwise. We examine the evolution of Canning’s game.
After twice declining invitations to join the senior set-up in both 2006 and 2007, Joe Canning was finally a member of Ger Loughnanne’s squad. Breezing past Antrim, Canning’s first major test was to arrive against Cork.
At this stage of his career, Canning was solely known as a full-forward. A set-piece master, Canning was one the most physical 19-year-olds to play the game. For a man his size, pace was no major issue however.
All of these attributes were on full display against the Rebels. Canning both physically and skilfully dominated the one and only Diarmuid O’ Sullivan, landing 2-12. Galway lost, but Joe’s performance would see him earn an All-Star.
Joe Canning was now the name on everyone’s lips and tipped to become one the greats of the game.
Now one the most watched players in the country, Canning continued to produce moments of sheer brilliance. With Galway now playing in Leinster, a revolution was expected and Canning was the man to lead it.
Unrealistic expectations would prove troublesome. The Portumna man was expected to beat teams on his own. The issue however was not Canning, Galway at the time were struggling and largely failed to make any impact
Both Canning’s fitness and attitude were repeatedly questioned. With each defeat Galway suffered, Canning would be the man to ship the majority of the criticism. Still operating at 14 at this time, teams were finding it easier to crowd out Joe.
Still, each year Canning would line out for Galway despite the constant criticism. He would also continue to produce moments of magic with each passing game. Joe Canning was once again named an All-Star in 2009.
Anthony Cunnigham took over a Galway side who had been embarrassed by Waterford in 2011. By this point, not much was expected of Galway.
Four years after his debut seasons’ wonders, the hurling world was beginning to form the belief that Canning would fail to reach his true potential. Still just 24 however, Canning would go on to silence his doubters and play a major role in a historic year for Galway.
Cunningham’s arrival saw Galway land their first ever Leinster Hurling title. Shocking Brian Cody’s Kilkenny side, Joe excelled in a new role. Alternating between the edge of the square and the middle of the field, Canning stung Kilkenny for 1-10 and was awarded the man-of-the-match.
As the Tribesmen trailed by a point to the same Kilkenny side in the same year’s All-Ireland final, Davy Glennon won Galway a free. A difficult free by any standard, Canning faced perhaps the most pressurised free in the history of the game.
Just five minutes previously, Canning had missed a far easier free from a more central position. No doubt, were Canning to miss this free, he would have been subject to torrential criticism. The character of the man shone through and Canning drew the game level.
Galway would be heavily defeated in the replay, Joe Canning had performed brilliantly throughout the year and this saw him awarded his third All-Star and a nomination for Hurler-of-the-Year.
The following three seasons brought little success for Anthony Cunningham’s Galway side. Galway failed to deliver any silverware, and a defeat in the 2015 All-Ireland final was the highlight of this period.
Still alternating between the edge of the square and the middle of the field, Galway supporters were beginning to grow frustrated with this particular tactic. The debate was heavily ignited as to whether or not Canning’s best position was full-forward.
Canning’s highlight reel moments would lead many to make the argument that he should be left at the edge of the square. Those in opposition however, would argue that he was not involved enough at full forward and was needed in the middle of the field.
Canning was ignored by All-Star selectors in 2015, despite being hugely influential in Galway’s run to the All-Ireland final and finishing the championship as top scorer.
After a players meeting in the winter of 2015, Anthony Cunningham was ejected out of his position. Micheal Donoghue would be his replacement.
Donoghue had his own opinion of the full-forward/midfield debate. Donoghue decided against playing Canning at the edge of the square. This role proved influential for Canning as he would perform brilliantly in 2016.
Perhaps the most-telling of Canning’s effect on this Galway side was the loss his side felt as he left the field due to a serious hamstring injury in last year’s All-Ireland semi final defeat to Tipperary. This injury would keep him out of action until the spring of this year.
Canning has now returned to the westerners starting 15. Achieving their first trophy since 2012, Galway were crowned league champions after slaughtering All-Ireland champions Tipperary.
Donoghue has been alternating Canning between midfield and half forward. This move has worked a treat for both Canning and Donoghue thus far. Galway swatted aside Dublin with Canning striking 0-9 (0-5 frees).
The debate on Joe Canning’s greatness will forever go on. One thing which is undisputable however, is Joe Canning is one of, if not the most discussed hurler in the history of the sport. If Galway can secure a first All-Ireland in almost 30 years in 2017, Canning will have a huge role to play.
Kevin Daly, Pundit Arena