GAA Legends - Ollie Canning
By John Harrington
It’s shaping up to be a busy couple of days for the Canning family in Croke Park this weekend.
Joe will be leading the charge for the county senior team when they face Waterford in Sunday’s All-Ireland Final, while earlier in the afternoon his nephew Jack will feature for the Galway minors in their All-Ireland Final against Cork.
But before all that another famous member of the Portumna hurling clan, four-time All-Star Ollie Canning, will be at Headquarters when he hosts the latest Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour at Croke Park on Saturday afternoon.
That should whet the appetite for any Galway supporters who are in Dublin a day early, and for Canning himself the chance to take a walk around Croke Park on the eve of a potentially historic day for his county is adding to the sense of occasion around the weekend.
“Yeah, from the point of view of the All-Ireland, it's lovely to be involved around the weekend,” Canning told GAA.ie.
“To be up there the day before the All-Ireland with Galway playing Waterford, it's a unique occasion.
“To have two teams like Galway and Waterford in it, and for me having played so long with Galway, it's a lovely occasion to get up and have a walk around Croke Park and tell a few stories about playing there with Galway and Portumna.
“Sunday then will be a great occasion. From Joe and Jack's point of view, all the family would like to see is the guys go out and perform individually and as part of the team.
“There'll be a huge crowd of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, we'll all hopefully be in Dublin to support the lads playing.
“From a family point of view it's a huge occasion and something that everyone is really looking forward to.”
It’s fitting that the All-Ireland Final weekend should be such a family affair for the Cannings because for them hurling has always meant family.
Sean and Josephine Canning passed on a great love of the game to their seven children who grew up with hurling as a way of life rather than just a hobby.
“During the summer months we were always in the back of the car and being taxied all around the county to and from games,” says Canning.
“Games that we played in ourselves at underage level and indeed games that we would have had uncles playing in or even our Dad.
“So, we were either watching Portumna with my Dad playing or watching uncles on my mum's side who played with Kiltormer.
“We often went to see Kiltormer competing in the Galway senior championship and they were always great days out.”
Ollie is fourth in line of the Canning brothers behind Seamus, Frank, and Davy, which meant he had little option other than to learn how to be able to hold his own with a hurley in hand as quickly as possible.
“Yeah, with three older brothers there was games being played in the front garden in our house most evenings and every weekend,” he says.
“Growing up with a farming background as well, we would have been helping out on the farm and the hurley and the ball was always with us. It was just something very natural for us, we didn't think much about it.
“I think when you're putting so much time into it at a young age it definitely hones your skills. And with three older brothers you have to be able to look after yourself I suppose from a young age too!”
Ollie showed a natural aptitude for the game from a very early age and made his first big breakthrough when he was selected on a Galway U-14 team for the Tony Forristal tournament.
From there his ascent through the ranks was rapid, and in 1992 he was a member of the All-Ireland Minor Championship winning Galway team even though he was still hurling at U-16 level.
“I came on in the semi-final that year as a sub for a few minutes,” he recalls. “For me to run out in Croke Park as a 16-year-old was just an unreal feeling.
“I remember running across the field to give the ref the little slip of paper and going in corner-back. We drew that game which was great, beat Kilkenny in the replay in Limerick, and then went on and beat Waterford in the Final.
“An interesting fact is that the current Galway manager, Micheal Donoghue, was playing on that Galway minor team and Derek McGrath was playing on the Waterford minor team and now you have the two guys managing the senior team as they face off on Sunday in the Final.
“For me that first experience in Croke Park and to go on and win an All-Ireland medal at that age was a really exciting time and something I look back on now fondly.
“There were some great players from that team who went on to play for the Galway seniors while I was still playing minor, and I suppose to see their progression from minor to senior gave me a lot of encouragement to do the same myself.”
It didn’t take him long to make the step-up. In 1996 he was called up to the Galway senior team and was part of the panel that won the National Hurling League.
He won another League medal in 2000 when he scored two goals in the Final against Tipperary, but it was when he was moved from attack to defence for the Tribesmen later that year that he really established himself as one of the stars of the game.
Until then corner-backs had traditionally been spoilers whose main brief was to stop a corner-forward by any means necessary and wouldn’t have been expected to do much hurling themselves.
But Canning was a different sort of animal entirely. He hurled his man from the front and his potent mixture of pace, skill, and eye for a pass meant he had the ability to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye which quickly made him a fan’s favourite.
“Maybe I had some sort of forwards instinct in me as well that helped me play corner-back as well,” says Canning.
“I was lucky enough that I wasn't too slow, I had a bit of pace, so I always felt confident that if I did attack the ball and get out in front that I could recover if needed to if I ran over the ball or miscontrolled it or something like that.
“That gave me a lot of confidence I suppose to play from the front. I wasn't the biggest man in the field so I always tried to play the game to my advantage. And when you're not the biggest sometimes standing behind a guy and trying to out-muscle him wasn't going to work for me.
“But if I could get to the ball first and win it I felt I had 80% of my job done at that stage. Then it was just a matter of trying to find a man out the field.
“And that was always part of my game too. I always tried to play heads up hurling and would prefer to give a 40 or 50-yard pass to a guy rather than just hit an 80 yard clearance. I felt that was more beneficial to the team.”
Canning’s skill-set and effectiveness in the corner-back position invariably meant he was given the task of man-marking the opposition’s most dangerous forward, which was the sort of task he savoured rather than dreaded.
“I always loved the challenge of marking those players,” he says. “If I was coming up against somebody I'd love to read in the paper that they had a really good game the day before and shot the lights out.
“That was always a big motivation and challenge for me and I really, really looked forward to that challenge just to see could I hurl this guy. Is he that good? It was a great test to me and I loved that competitive side to hurling and still do.
“You come up against a guy and you try your best and he tries his best. Some days a guy can out-hurl you and some days you can have a great game and a guy can still score a goal and a couple of points and it doesn't look great but overall you feel you did okay.
“It was always a great challenge and motivation for me to mark the best corner-forwards in the game.
“And even to this day hurling with Portumna I like that challenge from a competitive point of view. Hurling is a great sport and that's what it's all about - competing with your opposite number and may the best man win.”
He produced one of his greatest ever performances for Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final when they shocked reigning champions Kilkenny.
They didn’t quite hit the same heights in the subsequent All-Ireland Final against Tipperary when they were beaten by three points in a contest of fine margins, and to this day that still feels like a major opportunity missed as far as Canning is concerned.
“I think it was a great opportunity for Galway to win the All-Ireland,” he says.
“Tipperary, they probably made more right decisions on the day and got enough scores to beat us.
“But momentum is so important and we had some great chances that we missed early in the game. Then Tommy Dunne ran down the side-line and with their first chance of the game hit a brilliant score from around 60 metres out.
“We had dominated the first six or seven minutes of the game but failed to score and that point got Tipperary up and running. When you have periods of dominance in a game like that you really need to capitalise on them but we didn't and paid the price in the end.
“Tipperary got a really, really scrappy goal at the start of the second-half and as a defence we would have been disappointed with that. We had opportunities to clear it before it even got to Mickey Crimmins on the goal-line and we failed to do so.
“Look it, that's the way it goes. The game can go by very quickly and sometimes you have to be very proactive. I just felt 2001 was a missed opportunity for us."
Canning’s only other All-Ireland Final appearance came in 2005 when Galway were beaten by a superior Cork side, a defeat that didn’t leave them with the same sense of what might have been.
“I would have looked at that slightly differently to Tipperary in 2001,” says Canning.
“I just felt that Cork team was very, very good at the time. They were a top team and that bit more composed than us on the day.
“We would have had to have played really, really well to overturn Cork on the day. Again, it comes down to small things. They were just that bit more experienced than us on the day. Overall, they were that bit better, but they had a fine team back then.
“Very disappointing to lose, but sometimes when you look back and you can admit that they were a better team on the day, that makes it a bit easier to take.”
The curtain was brought down on his inter-county career by another tough defeat to Tipperary in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final.
Canning was one of Galway’s best players on the day, but then had to go off injured late in the game.
The Galway defence looked less secure without him, and Tipp hit three late points to win the match by the minimum.
“It was very disappointing,” says Canning. “I know people have remarked about that. But, look it, Lar Corbett got the last score and I wasn't marking him. I could have been anywhere else.
“Yes, where Lar got the score from I was playing in that corner, but the way the game had moved on you were just all over the field.
“You see it now even more, positions don't matter in some games. You can find yourself in any given position because there's so much movement in the forwards.
“For me, again, you take your chances and you'll win the game. We had chances in that game even when I was off the field to get scores. We didn't take them. Tipperary got two or three chances near the end they took them and they won the game.
“For me, that's what it comes down to. There's too much read into the mentality and this, that, and the other. You make the right decisions and you take your chances and you win games.
“You look back on that game, Galway had a couple of chances in the last six or seven minutes of that game but we didn't score them. Tipperary got three chances and they pretty much nailed them. They won by a point and that's the difference.”
He might have failed to win an All-Ireland senior medal with Galway, but his stellar club career more than made up for that disappointment.
He was a key man for a truly great Portumna team that won a remarkable four All-Ireland Club Championships between 2006 and 2014.
“I was really, really lucky with the club career that I had,” says Canning.
“I played for years with a Portumna team that was competitive, but didn't have the extra couple of players you need to be competitive and win county finals.
“Then a great group of players came through from a minor team and we made the breakthrough in 2003 when we won our first ever senior county title.
“We wouldn't have been a club that was in any way steeped in hurling history at all, so to make that breakthrough was really great for us.
“We went on then for the next decade I suppose to win six county titles and four club All-Irelands. That was just a fantastic return.
“You always knew in any given year that we had a chance because we had such a competitive team.
“People asked me did I miss county hurling with Galway after I retired from it, and I know some people can feel a bit lost after retiring from county hurling or football because they lose their drive or goals, but for me I just slotted back into Portumna.
“For me to go back into Portumna after retiring made things a lot easier.
“Because we were very, very professional in Portumna at the time and were training extremely hard so you didn't really have much time to be thinking about not playing for Galway because I was so busy with Portumna.”
Canning is 41 now but he looks as fit as ever and is still one of the main men for the Portumna senior team. He has no plans to hang up the boots anytime soon either.
“I love it,” he says. “I'm living in Galway City for the last number of years so it keeps me really connected with home. I get home three or four times a week to meet up with the lads and go down to the field and train. It's a bit like therapy for me.
“You go down to the field and you forget your troubles and all you think about then is the ball-work and the drills that you're doing. So, from that point of view I really, really enjoy it.
“We're not blessed in Portumna with young players coming through. I would love if we had more young hurlers coming through and they said, 'Ollie, that's it for you, take a break'.
“But like a lot of other clubs now we don't have the players coming through any more. So, you'll see with Portumna that we have a lot of guys who are hurling for the last 10 or 15 years and even more.
“I'm actually into my 25th season playing senior club hurling with Portumna. So, when you think about it in those kind of numbers, a lot of people would probably say, 'Jesus, Ollie, it is time to retire'.
“But I love it and I've been lucky enough that I don't really pick up injuries and never really had any even during my Galway career.
“So, while I can stay injury-free and I can still enjoy it, I'll probably keep going down hitting a few balls with Portumna at whatever level that may be.”
An All-Ireland senior medal was the only honour Canning didn’t win over the course of a stellar career, so it would be hugely satisfying for him to see his brother Joe climb the Hogan Stand steps on Sunday with his Galway team-mates.
“From a Galway point of view I would love Galway to end the 28-year famine that we're currently going through,” says Canning.
“It would give me such satisfaction and such pride in all of these Galway players because I know where they're all coming from.
“The demands on these players now from preparation to video analysis to diet to the time spent, they put their lives on hold really for whatever length the season is.
“And the pressure they're under from social media and from supporters who like nothing better than a good giving out session, I think the pressure these players are under is extreme.
“Their heart is in the right place, their commitment is in the right place, and all you're hoping is that these guys can go out and play to their potential.
“And if they do that and can be happy with their performance on the day, then if you're good enough you'll win the game and if you're not you won't. That's hurling for you.
“It would fill me with an awful lot of pride if these players can do it for Galway.”
Ollie Canning's Bord Gáis Energy Legends tour of Croke Park takes place on Saturday at 2pm. For tickets, go here.