On Tuesday morning, the GAA released this year’s nominations for Hurler of the Year. In a summer filled with a myriad of marvellous individual performances, narrowing it down to three of the best was always going to be a hard call.
However, few people could have predicted the outrage felt by many after the trio of Kevin Moran, Jamie Barron and Joe Canning were revealed.
The omission of Oranmore man Gearoid McInerney has caused quite some controversy and rightly so. The 27-year-old was simply sublime for the Tribesmen as they ended their 29-year drought to reclaim the Liam MacCarthy Cup, anchoring and marshalling their defence from the number six position.
Many argued that both the full-back and centre-back position had been costing Galway their place at the top ladder of the hurling pecking order. However, both Daithi Burke and Gearoid McInerney filled those two jerseys with distinction, determination and huge drive which significantly aided Galway on their march to glory.
McInerney’s performances in the penultimate stages of this year’s championship were fantastic. The centre-back shone where Galway struggled before. In the semi-final, his shoulder on Padraic Maher was more than just a show of huge physicality, it was a statement of intent. It was a message to Tipperary and to the hurling world in general that Galway were not going to lie down.
From the beginning of the year, Micheál Donoghue’s men possessed a different attitude. McInerney led from the back and up front Joe Canning exemplified Galway’s newfound dynamism and cohesiveness.
From the centre-forward position Canning orchestrated the Tribesmen’s attacks. It is somewhat an astonishing statistic that Galway failed to register a single green flag in four of their five championship games. However, with Canning leading the line, supported by the likes of Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney, Galway racked up huge tallies in the point-scoring stakes.
Galway’s forward play improved significantly this year as they played with far more freedom, fluidity and flare. The positioning of Canning at centre-forward was an essential feature which hugely aided the dynamism of Galway’s rejuvenated attack.
In years gone by, Galway relied far too heavily on the 29-year-old. In many ways it affected Canning and also his fellow forwards. The Portumna man was under huge pressure to carry Galway on his shoulders and, subconsciously, the other Galway forwards must have been looking to get the ball to Joe at every possible occasion. Due to the over-reliance on Canning, Galway’s attacking unit was stagnant and predictable.
When Donoghue came on board after Anthony Cunningham’s unsavoury departure following the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Clarinbridge native had different ideas. His ideas came to fruition this season in particular as Canning shone brightest, playing in a far deeper role, dropping off the centre-back and picking out pinpoint passes and skilfully crafting points of his own.
When considering the Hurler Of The Year accolade, Canning was the most influential player this summer.
He didn’t miss a free in the All-Ireland final. He scored 46 points over the course of five championship games with ten of those coming from play and a further three coming from sideline cuts.
However, this summer wasn’t about Canning’s scoring ability, it was about his magical stickwork, his cleverness, his vision. Canning amassed an array of assists over the course of the year and allowed the likes of Conor Cooney and Conor Whelan to flourish inside.
In the early stages of the All-Ireland final, Canning had the chance to go for his own score. It was a risky option to go for the score but one that he would have gone for in the past. However, his remarkable peripheral vision once again came to the fore and he managed to pick out Joe Cooney, who made an easy angle for himself to pop over a score.
This, to many, was a simple score. However, for Galway and for Joe it was a prime example of change and adaptation. From a high-scoring target man to a roaming centre-forward, Canning has utterly transformed his game. This transformation has brought the Portumna native’s first Celtic Cross at senior level. Only the best of the best are able to completely overhaul their style of play and still achieve so much.
Leadership is an attribute that teams and managers always look for. Canning has always been a leader but when they needed him most in the All-Ireland semi-final, he stood up and was counted like never before. Galway scored a mere five points in the last 20 minutes of that game. Canning scored all five, including the dramatic last-minute winner.
Many have the perception that if Canning doesn’t score much from open-play, he doesn’t play well. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Canning was Galway’s key influencer this year. Yes, Jamie Barron had a phenomenal year but Canning deserves top honours.
This was Galway’s year. It was Joe’s year.
Canning doesn’t deserve to win this award for the sake of giving it to one of the media’s favourite sportspeople, he deserves it because he was the best hurler in the country this year and was the key man who guided his team to their first All-Ireland title inn 29 years.
Seán Ó Murchú, Pundit Arena