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'They love playing the game and they're four of the best that have ever played it'

TJ Reid, Patrick Horgan, Seamus Callanan and Joe Canning all emerged together and continue to star in hurling.

Updated Jun 7th 2020, 8:00 AM

Genius WeekThis article is a part of Genius Week, a series of features reflecting on sporting genius in its many different forms.

Below, Fintan O'Toole takes a closer look at the four hurling attacking geniuses that all started out in 2008 and are still starring.

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pjimage (1) TJ Reid, Patrick Horgan, Seamus Callanan and Joe Canning Source: INPHO

TJ REID started out in Portlaoise, Joe Canning announced his arrival up in Belfast.

Both part of runaway victories, Reid was brought on for Kilkenny and grabbed a point as a personal memento against Offaly, Canning fired 2-6 as Galway cruised past Antrim.

Down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Callanan and Horgan took their first steps in the same Munster showdown. The former started and shot 0-3 in Tipperary's success, the latter thrown in when the game was up and Cork's defeat could not be prevented.

Four players all born in an 11-month period, November '87 to October '88, and four senior hurling championship debuts all made in the same month, June 2008.

They all possessed rich promise at the time having dazzled in the underage ranks. Canning had already gained fame with his three All-Ireland minor final appearances and central role in powering Portumna to club glory. Reid's reputation was strengthened by his input to Ballyhale's St Patrick's Day triumph and he had a senior medal with Kilkenny after sitting on the bench the previous September.

But they all set out that summer taking on the challenge that faces all sporting prodigies - could that talent blossom into something substantial at adult level? Would they all make the step up or would some falter?

The answer has been definitive, the transition successfully completed long ago. 12 years on from their starting place on the grid, they are now all together leading the pack and remain instrumental to the hopes and dreams of their respective counties.

"The obvious thing is they love playing the game and they're four of the best that have ever played it," says Derek McGrath, who opposed them all during his time as Waterford boss.

joe-canning-and-derek-mcgrath Joe Canning and Derek McGrath after the 2017 All-Ireland final Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

"They love their club and they love their county. That's a very simple way of putting it. Incredible longevity especially when there's so much evidence and speculation of people going from a career of 20 to 28/29 and finishing then. I don't know the four characters well but know them from minor conversations on the back of games and stuff, and they love it."

"The great thing about them is they haven't all come and had it easy all the time," reckons Paddy Stapleton, a former Tipperary team-mate of Callanan and defender who faced the other three.

"TJ didn't break into the team for a few years and then he was on it no matter what happened. Seamie started brilliantly with Tipp and then he was on and off it for a couple of years. Pat Horgan was dropped a few years ago and Joe Canning, some people were seeing him as a reason why Galway sometimes weren't doing well, they thought he over-dominated. It just goes to show good they are that for that amount of time, still able to come again and show how good they are."

By the close of 2015 TJ Reid stood apart amongst the quartet. He had just been crowned Hurler of the Year and was a serial All-Ireland senior victor with seven experiences of climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand. That season he reached the summit with club and county.

Callanan was trying to replicate his feat in 2010 with Tipperary. Canning was still searching for a breakthrough after Galway had fallen short at the final hurdle. Horgan's race with Cork had been run by the end of July.

If any doubts persisted then, they have evaporated now. A third medal rests in Callanan's back pocket after 2019, he was the leader the latest moment of Tipperary joy. Canning realised his ambition in a final three years ago and was one of the key figurse in shaping the outcome. If Horgan has not reached that peak with Cork, he has been greeted with no shortage of personal acclaim.

Individual awards are one measure of how their careers have unfolded. Canning's lightning start and recent triumph. Reid's rise to control and then a forceful showing last year. Callanan's reputation exploded since 2014, Horgan likewise since 2017.

All-Stars

  • Joe Canning - 2008, 2009, 2012, 2017, 2018.
  • TJ Reid - 2012, 2014, 2015, 2019.
  • Patrick Horgan - 2013, 2017, 2018, 2019.
  • Seamus Callanan - 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019.

Through it all their scoring returns have been a constant weapon, eye-watering figures embellished by free-taking responsibilities, although Callanan has not had that role of late, and illuminated by some magical goals.

Championship Scoring Totals

  • Joe Canning: 27-424 (505)
  • Patrick Horgan: 21-404 (467)
  • TJ Reid: 22-339 (405)
  • Seamus Callanan: 35-215 (320)

Reid and Callanan emerged in counties with high expectations. There was natural comparisons drawn to the greatness elsewhere in their forward lines. As Henry Shefflin and Eoin Kelly started to reach the close of their careers, the question was posed as to who would fill the vacancy?

Callanan burst onto the scene in 2008 but a regular starting berth was subsequently tricky to secure. He was substituted in the 2010 qualifier tie against Wexford, after that he only started half of Tipperary's next 16 championship games.

"I think after a certain amount of time, if you're consistent and confident in yourself, which they both got after a couple of big seasons, then I think all that talk just faded away," says Stapleton.

"Initially trying to establish yourself with the older brigade is one of the hardest parts. But when they both established themselves, I'd say they didn't even think of any of that pressure any more."

In 2011 Reid played a winning role in an All-Ireland senior final for the third time off the bench. He was omitted from the start in the quarter-final Limerick in 2012 but came on and by the year's end had his first All-Star. 

"John Mullane is my brother-in-law and obviously we'd a huge involvement in the 2008 final," recalls McGrath.

"TJ only came on in the second half in that and got four points from play. The classic case of doing your apprenticeship in Kilkenny. I've seen a huge physical improvement in him over the years. There's a real maturity in his play.

"I think he's become hugely tactically aware, as as well as being a genius in the air and in terms of passes that he can give, he's a real reader of the game. There's a brilliant example in the county final of last year against James Stephens. TJ has a point for the taking from about 50 yards and he just gives his pass to Eoin Cody from 50 yards straight into his hand, the speed and angle of the pass contribute to Cody's brilliant goal."

Stapleton and Callanan are from neighbouring clubs but different divisions. Their hurling careers initially intersected at St Joseph's College in Borrisoleigh. Seeing the forward express himself to net 16 times across the 2014-16 championships was little surprise.

seamus-callanan-celebrates-with-his-mother-mary Seamus Callanan celebrates with his mother Mary after last year's All-Ireland final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

"When we played Harty Cup in 2004, he was playing wing-forward, about 15 at the time. Brendan Maher was corner-forward and he was 14. Seamie was very talented even back then, very tall and flying for us. I never played against him an underage but played an awful lot of senior games against him at club level.

"From '14 onwards he just took off. He got a hat-trick against Kilkenny down in Nowlan Park and after that he never looked back. Eamonn O'Shea always had just so much time for his skill. Every year he was adding things to his game. If you notice how much better he is in the air since he started in '08, it's night and day.

"He's a good lesson for supporters as much as young players because supporters were quick to write some of these players off if they have a bad season. I think if you get behind them they've so much in the tank that hasn't been shown yet."

Pressure is something Canning has always had to live with. Galway have been pinning their hopes on him leading the county since he was a teenager.

"The apprenticeship lines were a bit easier in Tipp and Kilkenny because there's a natural conveyor belt," says McGrath.

"The brilliant thing about Joe is that he's always been an iconic figure and sometimes it's very hard to fulfil that expectation but he's done that really well. The key thing is the calmness that's in his play. You look at the '17 semi-final, not just the execution of the shot at the end, the calmness. Even the final in '18, that crucial last quarter where he was leading the fightback. He's had a real calm authority."

joe-canning-celebrates-with-the-liam-maccarthy-cup Joe Canning celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

"I'd say it was hard," notes Stapleton.

"One element of supporters and commentators saying he's not doing enough and some say he's trying to do too much, but he's probably just trying to play his normal game. I think Galway always had a strong team, they got a couple more very able forwards. Around the 16, 17, 18 season, he just seemed a man who was free of all that burden, he knew he could trust his team-mates and play his game and I suppose he's playing his best hurling in the last few years."

Horgan is not yet in the bracket of All-Ireland winners. He snapped over a wondrous score that put Cork on the cusp of glory in 2013 but Domhnall O'Donovan countered and that was the springboard for the replay emergence of Shane O'Donnell. His individual displays have elevated his hurling stature of late, seven goals last summer with the hat-trick highlight against Kilkenny. He has taken ownership of the unwanted label of the best current player yet to win the All-Ireland.

patrick-horgan-and-paddy-stapleton Patrick Horgan in action against Paddy Stapleton

"He's an absolute genius," says McGrath.

"Will it hang over him forever? I don't think so. I think he's been a great leader for Cork. People measure things in medals, I wouldn't be one for that. He's just one of the greatest players to have played the game, simple as and that will be remembered as much as anything else.

"I met him for the first time last year at a Glen Rovers event, they were having a promotion before the championship, seemed a very affable man, serious about his hurling, free-spirited in terms of how he played the game. You go back to the goals he got against Kilkenny last year, he's a beautiful striking style, he's just a master craftsman. He's probably my favourite player out there."

Away from the high profile of the county game, they all wreak havoc at a local level. Reid celebrated his fifth All-Ireland club title in January, putting him just ahead of Canning on that list. When Drom-Inch made their Tipperary senior title breakthrough in 2011, Callanan was captain and top scorer (0-6). Glen Rovers saw their 26-year spell in the Cork wilderness end in 2015 with Horgan shooting 0-9 in that final and bagging 0-12 a year later when they retained the crown.

patrick-horgan Patrick Horgan celebrating after Glen Rovers triumphed in 2016 Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

"There's a lot of times where people are quoted about the importance of their club, I think with these four players it's particularly genuine," says McGrath.

"You can see it's real. I played in an All-Ireland club final in '08 against Joe Canning's Portumna, they gave us an awful hammering. We spent a lot of time focusing on Canning and we dropped Brian Phelan back and then Canning came out centre-forward and Damien Hayes did the damage against us.

"They've all consistently lead with their clubs. Horgan has with the Glen, Sean Prendergast was managing Drom-Inch the year they won in Tipperary, I remember him saying about Callanan that he was just a proper leader. And every clip you see of TJ, he is there doing it for Ballyhale.

"I went up to Hugginstown on a Tuesday last year, Ballyhale were playing James Stephens, TJ was playing, Kilkenny had played Carlow on the Sunday. He was being marked by young Kenny, a minor and very good player, Eoin Larkin was playing as a sweeper and TJ was still able to influence."

Stapleton retired from Tipperary service in November 2016 but Borris-Ileigh lit up the club scene over the winter to command his hurling focus. He had to police Callanan in a county quarter-final last October. A decade on from marking Horgan on his first championship start for Tipperary, they collided in a Munster semi-final last November. And then in January he witnessed the control Reid can exert when an All-Ireland decider is tight and tense.

"We were on top in the first half against the Glen so Horgan had to go out centre-forward for the second half. Sure then he got a goal out of nothing, most lads if they tried it would fall head over heels. It was unreal.

"The biggest thing about TJ is he can do everything. He makes a lot of the play but he's well able to score, brilliant in the air and works harder than most lads.

"You can't go and help any of the rest of the team when you're marking any of those four. Your job is to stay beside them, they need such respect. If you let them turn at all on target, it's going to be a goal. Their decision making as well, you wouldn't see too many of these going for goal unless it's definitely on."

tj-reid-brian-cody-and-adian-mullen-celebrate-after-the-game-with-the-cup TJ Reid after Ballyhale's victory in January with team-mates Brian Cody and Adrian Mullen.

On Friday the GAA mapped out their fixture plans for 2020, this year's championship flame is still alive and flickering.

It's set to be an unusual event run over late autumn and early winter.

But if it gets the green light, Reid, Horgan, Callanan and Canning will be integral figures 12 years on from those first steps into the senior arena as their hurling genius endures.

Still shining. Still leading.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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