In the height of summer 2019, Joe Canning was sitting at home watching reruns of old Championship classics on Eir Sport.
It was a season that saw him sidelined for over four months after groin surgery and not even his return during the second-half against Dublin could prevent their shock loss. Galway's quest to claim the Liam McCarthy Cup came to an end in June.
The drama that followed was of little interest to him. There were further shocks to come as well as two thrilling semi-finals but the Tribesmen's absence loomed large over all of it. So replays made do. What he found amazed him.
"Halfbacks that are legends of the game and they got the ball and just drove it down the field. They didn’t care where the ball went," he exclaimed last year.
"Now if you did that, you’d be whipped off after two minutes. Teams back then couldn’t live with what is happening now. Tactically and scoring-wise and stuff like that. Puckout wise."
It was a comment that emphasised the extensive reshaping hurling has undergone over the past decade. Today possession is nine-tenths of the law. What you have, you hold. Controlled and through the lines. That is because forcing a turnover takes a phenomenal toll: A distinctive blend of aggression, selflessness, synchronised tackling and relentless pressure.
It is that philosophy that underpins Galway's current system. With the ball, they need to be utterly precise. Without it, they need to be flat out dogged. Where does Joe Canning fit in that? That's a well-worn conversation.
The reliance on the 32-year-old is long-established. The constant speculation and focus on Canning's centrality to the cause is what prompted Johnny Glynn's infamous outburst in 2015.
“What’s this about Galway only having one forward?” was the question from RTE's Joanne Cantwell. Cue the comedy: "fucking bullshit."
Glynn did elaborate shortly after and stressed that less load can help unleash Canning.
"Joe is probably the best forward in the game but there’s five more of us there. When you pull a bit of heat off him, you see how well he can play."
For much of his career, the Portumna clubman's value was measured in white and green flags. Galway needed a Canning haul to win. Thanks to this fact he is on course to eclipse Henry Shefflin and became the all-time top scorer in Championship.
The running comparison between Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning after 58 games.
Joe is now 40 points off a new record.
I remember @lanno10 pointing out that Shefflin's record might be higher. I think the disputed goal is the one replayed at 9:35 herehttps://t.co/stGMDOV31d pic.twitter.com/g8C3gJAlIQ
— GAA Stats (@GAA_Stats) November 15, 2020
In recent years, this pressure has lessened. The emergence of bright prospects like Conor Whelan and Brian Concannon saw Canning pushed away from goal.
Under Shane O'Neill, this evolution has accelerated. Now his domain is between the 45s. The modern game's warzone. A sea of collisions and rucks where retreating half forwards hunt their prey, trying to isolate scurrying ball carriers and force a turnover.
In this jungle, only a rare combination of speed and skill can save you. Here, Canning is still king. It is a sound strategy. Put your best player in the heart of the action.
Against Wexford, he did not have a single shot from play. Last week versus Kilkenny, Canning finished with 0-14 including 0-3 from play. His main contribution is not what he scored but what he created.
On numerous occasions, Canning received the sliotar in midfield and immediately delivered it long to his inside forwards. This ensured Kilkenny's roaming pack couldn't outnumber and turnover the ball in midfield or when the attacker got on the ball.
The irony is that this approach is similar to the one Canning criticised last year. The game's pillars have not changed, they have just drastically improved. A good first touch, speed of thought, clean striking; age-old skills. They merely moved to an unprecedented level.
Canning's opening quarter illustrated the positives and negatives of this approach.
Canning is ideally placed to receive a handpass from Joseph Cooney.
He immediately strikes the ball long towards Brian Concannon.
Concannon collects and wins a free that Canning subsequently converts.
This tactic is all about speed. Canning moves the ball before the withdrawn half-forward line can engage him. The target gets on the ball before Kilkenny's half-back line can retreat. It happened again and again.
Joseph Cooney handpasses down the line to Joe Canning.
Canning catches the ball and immediately strikes it.
It finds Niall Burke and once again, Galway win a free that Canning converts.
Canning had 21 possessions in play. He won four puck outs and forced two turnovers. That is the reward of playing with pace. Then there is the cost. His passing accuracy was just 61%. At times, the theory was sound but in practice, it faltered.
Early in the game, the ball breaks and Canning rises it in his own half.
He immediately strikes it long towards Conor Whelan.
The pass is just too high and runs in behind. Eoin Murphy carries it out.
The five-time All-Star makes risky plays look remarkably secure. A snapshot from the sideline would be considered a rash decision for many forwards, but not for him.
Top class score from Joe Canning for @Galway_GAA pic.twitter.com/kH3mX17dAL
— The GAA (@officialgaa) November 14, 2020
His execution of the sideline cut has long been a work of art. During his debut intercounty season, he used to astonish team-mates by curling the sliotar over from the corner flag.
This talent was on display last weekend. In the first half, he played a superb sideline straight to a sprinting Joseph Cooney. Consider the precision required here. The pace and height of the pass had to be perfect.
The modern half-forward also needs to do huge work defensively. Canning showed he is more than capable of doing so.
In the second half, Kilkenny launch an attack down the wing as John Donnelly passes to Padraig Walsh. Canning (yellow) tracks back and prepares to make a tackle.
He wins possession and Galway win a sideline.
It was by no means a flawless performance. Canning was inaccurate with several placed balls. He put a 65' wide, hit the post with a sideline and a free. He also had a free saved in the second half. Richie Hogan's spectacular goal came after Canning's attempted pass from a sideline failed to find a man.
Richie Hogan shows his incredible skill with this super GOAL for @KilkennyCLG pic.twitter.com/563lTLY3pa
— The GAA (@officialgaa) November 14, 2020
Galway's problem last weekend was their conversion. They had 27 scoring chances from play, Kilkenny had 18. Despite this, both teams converted 13. Galway had 12 wides versus Kilkenny's 5.
There was a striking moment midway through the second half when Canning opted to go for goal from a 21-metre free instead of tapping over. It was clear he realised Galway needed to make their dominance tally and as usual, the onus to do so fell on him.
On co-commentary last weekend, Brendan Cummins spoke about the need for Canning to be "a cog in the wheel rather than a star man." Galway's best chance at success is to ensure their talisman can dominant the middle third without additional pressure to make it count on the scoreboard.