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‘Tony made so many hurls for Joe, and Joe… he was always so fussy. So fussy’

In this exclusive extract from the official biography of Tony Keady, Joe Canning talks about the man and their relationship.

The two of them were ‘Hurlers of the Year’ a generation apart, but Joe Canning explains how the late Tony Keady was an inspiration to him, and also someone who helped him have the best hurley money could not buy. In this exclusive extract from the official biography of Tony Keady, ‘One Hundred and Ten Percent Legend’, Canning talks about the man and their relationship.

The Canning family had lived close to Tony’s workshop in Gortanumera, outside Portumna.

Tony was a maker of quality hurleys.

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And a young Joe Canning, at a time when he struggled to stretch to Tony’s chest – even when he stood on his tippy-toes – was a boy who wanted the very best stick Tony could make. In time, Tony would leave the business, and shortly after he did so the Canning family would become one of the most notable suppliers of sticks to teams in Ireland, and to hurlers all over the world.

Tony was still working in Gortanumera when he married Margaret, but when their first born, Shannon, was on the way Tony told his wife that he felt the hurling season was too limited. Also, he was finding it more difficult to get his hands on good Irish ash. ‘He was not going to make someone a hurl from wood that came from Lithuania, as he said himself, or wherever… if it was not Irish ash it was no good for Tony,’ explains Margaret.

They decided to leave the hurley making business behind them, and enter the ‘family business’ with even greater commitment.

March to September, when the demand for sticks was highest was fine, but what about the rest of the year?

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That was Tony’s question.

He wanted a steady job, guaranteed income. Tony and Margaret knew that everything was about to change for them. It was 2001, and Tony said he might continue to make a few hurls now and again, but he called a halt to his eight year-old business, and took up his job as a caretaker in Calasanctius College in Oranmore, where Margaret would also work. Tony also changed because of impending fatherhood. When Tony and Margaret’s first born was a daughter, Tony changed even more. He embraced his new role with gusto, and the attachment between Tony and Shannon from day one was clearly made of the deepest love and admiration.

Before then, however, and while Tony was working full-time at measuring and balancing perfect hurleys, Tony and young Joe Canning got to know one another very well indeed.

‘Joe would always go down to his workshop,’ Margaret explains. ‘and Tony would come home for the dinner…and he’d say… “That Joe Canning… I got nothing done today, because he was down with me the whole time.” ’

Margaret knew her husband was not complaining. The young boy had something about him.

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Already, there was a magical quality about how he talked about the hurley he wanted, and how fussy he was about having it just perfect.

‘Dad would tell the story,’ Shannon continues, ‘about how he would drive past the school that Joe was in… and Joe would be looking out for him.

‘Joe would be peering out from behind the big gates.

‘And Dad would find himself beeping the horn… and Joe would get a lift home with him, because the families lived so close to one another. Every time he turned the corner in his car, he told us he would always see that… “Blondie head of Joe Canning.”

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‘Dad always said Joe was so fussy.’ Margaret nods her head.

And she smiles. ‘Joe was so particular about his hurls, even as a little kid… and I suppose he looked up to Tony as well as a famous hurler… as a Hurler of the Year… something Joe would also become.

‘Tony made so many hurls for Joe, and Joe… he was always so fussy. So fussy.

‘He might spend the whole day in the workshop with Tony… and he’d be picking the plank, and watching everything Tony was doing. And y’see, Tony would always give time to anyone, but especially children. I don’t believe Tony even needed a watch because he would never check it, and yet… he’d never be late for anything.

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‘He always made sure he had time for people… for kids.

‘Time for everyone, and everything… but he’d gladly give his whole day to young Joe and he’d come home, into the kitchen to me, and there’d be a big smile on his face and he’d say… “That Joe Canning!”

‘Joe always picked out his own plank of wood.

‘It had to be just right, and Tony would know that the boy would pick the perfect plank.’

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Joe Canning laughs at the same memory.

‘Tony worked with Sean Nevin, his brother-in-law, and their place was only 200 or 300 yards from our school,’ Joe recalls.

‘They made the hurleys together. Like back then, I always used their hurley… he was the only hurley maker as well as anything else around these parts.

‘I’d go into them, and I’d be fussy alright… I have to admit to that.’ Joe has another memory of Tony that he says is ‘huge.’

He was in the national school in Gortanumera, a tiny school, so tiny that there were only five other boys in his class, but they made it through to a school final. They were playing Ballyturn.

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And they would win the game easily, 6-7 to 1-1.

But the memory is not of the victory and the happiness afterwards. Instead, Joe still recalls being amazed that one of the most famous hurlers in the country turned up to watch and, not only that, but that Tony Keady was more than willing to serve as one of the umpires.

‘Tony had a nephew on the team… Colin Nevin was playing with us, Sean’s son… and Tony was umpire that afternoon. For someone like him, who was a complete hero to us… for him to turn up and do umpire was pretty cool. And we were only a small school, it was a two-teacher school… and we only had numbers for seven-a-side hurling.’

Joe revisits his time in the workshop. ‘Yeah… I would go up to his workshop, and I’d watch what they were doing… and I’d be fussy enough.

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‘I still am, I suppose.

‘But Tony and Sean would make the hurley for me.

‘It was probably not all day I was with them. My mother would want me home anyhow, but I would have been with them for long enough… longer than every other kid like me or some other Joe Soap who came in for a hurley. ‘I remember they would have a few nice ones left out for me… I suppose that way I’d only be getting in their way half the time.’

Joe was not one of the Galway players whom Tony would text before games. It was not necessary when Joe Canning reached the high point of his career as a Galway hurler and was chasing what seemed a damned elusive All-Ireland senior title. They would meet regularly. Joe was living in Oranmore, like his old hero, and they’d bump into one another in the shop or the petrol station all of the time.

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‘Tony didn’t need to text me before games and wish me luck,’ Joe asserts. ‘He would have shaken my hand and told me to my face.’

Typically, Joe makes absolutely no big deal of spending possibly the most precious few minutes of his career with Tony’s wife and daughter once the 2017 All-Ireland final had delivered everything it promised.

He explains that it happened… ‘naturally enough.’

‘Margaret and Shannon came onto the field… and they walked in behind Micheal Donoghue and myself. I had already met my own family in the stand, and when we saw Margaret and Shannon it was just a natural thing to do…

‘And so we stood beside them.’

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The gesture transcended an epic All-Ireland final, and left a watching nation absolutely transfixed – at the kind-hearted gesture that silently articulated the true nature of the GAA at a time when the association is being accused of becoming some form of crazed commercial beast. But Joe Canning says there was no talk between anyone on the Galway panel or management team to embrace the Keady family on such an historic and emotional day.

‘There was no plan, and it was no big deal for us to do what we did,’ Joe further explains. ‘Shannon is friends with my niece, Tegan… they were on the Galway team together… played in the under-16 All-Ireland camogie final. ‘It was not as if it was something Micheal and myself thought we should do. It was just the natural thing.

‘I didn’t realise any significance to it.

‘It just happened, and it was good if it helped them.

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‘Anyhow, we had been close to the family all that time. We had Shannon and the three boys, Anthony and Jake and Harry, in with us at training the week before the final… just in… pucking around with the lads and taking some shots. The evening they were in with us I wasn’t training myself because of my knee… I needed to rest it before the game… so I didn’t puck around with them myself.

‘We knew it meant something to Margaret and Shannon to be with them after we won, and we wanted them to realise that Tony was with us in our thoughts that whole day. He was a huge part of Galway hurling history and his performances in All-Ireland finals inspired so many people.

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‘I hoped it helped them, the same as thinking of Tony definitely helped us as a group of players.’

Joe also reveals, with typical honesty, that he had no intention of walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand, and joining with his teammates in a tribal celebration as the Liam MacCarthy Cup was finally handed over to them, and trusted in their possession once again after 29 long years.

He has always been one who prefers to stay on the field at times like that, and the aftermath of the 2017 All-Ireland final was no different.

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‘I don’t know why I did not go up onto the Hogan Stand.

‘I don’t know if I ever went up those steps… maybe after our first All-Ireland club title, but … to be honest, I like to get to see my family straight after the game and stuff like that.

‘That is more important to me.

‘Some people like to do it, and walk up those steps… and it’s not that I don’t want to do it, or wouldn’t like it.’

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He remembers Shannon Keady telling him that he should leave her, and go join his teammates.

‘But my priority after a game has always been to stay with the people I know… my family and my friends.

‘I can see how it is nice to be up there celebrating and receiving a trophy… but at a time like that everything can be a bit of a daze… and I like to hold onto the memories.

‘It’s nice to have a clear memory of watching it all happening in front of you. And get that chance to take it all in.

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‘At least try to take it all in!’

‘One Hundred and Ten Percent Legend: The official biography of Tony Keady’ published by Hero Books is available on Amazon in print and ebook

For more great sporting memoirs visit www.herobooks.digital

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