Is Joe the Goat? The debate over hurling’s Greatest of all Time has raged for decades – at least as far back as the era of Mick Mackey and Christy Ring.
In the modern age, however, Joe Canning is widely regarded as his generation’s outstanding player. He isn’t the most successful by a long stretch – but the fact that the five-time All Star from Portumna had to work so hard for his single All-Ireland medal is what makes his life and times so engaging. He could so easily have ended up the greatest player to never win a Celtic Cross. Just ask anyone who has played football for Mayo.
That story is compellingly told in Laochra Gael (TG4, Thursday, 9.30pm), which follows Canning from underage sensation with his club to a hurling superstar required to carry on his shoulders the hopes of an entire county. It was both curse and blessing that the county should be Galway – hurling’s perennial nice guys and, in the estimation of their rivals, softest of soft touches.
“Curse” because, by the time he joined the senior side, Galway had won just two All-Irelands in the previous 25 years. It was by no means certain they would do so again, no matter how many dazzling displays Canning put in. But it was a blessing in that it made the All-Ireland he did drag them to, in 2017, extra special.
Because the GAA isn’t professional, players are required to have a life outside of the sport. And so Canning comes across as self-aware and down to earth. He also understands how much hurling means to the people of Galway. He acknowledges this when recalling the crucial free with which he drew the 2012 All-Ireland against Kilkenny (Galway, being Galway, flopped in the replay).
“If I missed this, I’m going to be ridiculed,” he remembers thinking. “There are fine margins in how people perceive you. If I’d missed I would have felt embarrassed, letting down people. What would my family think? What would people be saying to them?”
It’s a story with many ups and downs. He remained loyal to the Galway manager Anthony Cunningham during a player heave that resulted in the coach’s exit. And he put his foot in his mouth following that All-Ireland draw against Kilkenny when a garbled remark to journalists was interpreted as an attack on the Kilkenny star Henry Shefflin.
His comments made the rivalry between the sides personal: Kilkenny duly steamrollered Galway in the replay. “I did feel a couple of guys blamed me for the loss,” he says. “That’s fair enough.”
The documentary has a bittersweet ending. Canning, who retired in 2021, of course, cherished his All-Ireland win in 2017. He didn’t want to go down as the greatest to never lift the McCarthy Cup. More than that, he knew how important it was for his community and his family.
The tragic afterword is that his mother would die of cancer in 2022. “We were very close,” he says, blinking back tears. It’s a reminder sport is never just about sport – a point this insightful film communicates with grit and gusto.
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