By Tom Lyons
A LEGEND in his own lifetime in the red jersey of Cork, Graham Canty and his beloved blue of Bantry Blues, didn’t quite have things all his own way during his magnificent career.
His underage career with Bantry Blues came at a time when the young Blues were in a lull following a golden era. Despite a lack of underage silverware, he still played for Cork minors for two years and for Cork U21s for three years.
But again honours in red were scarce and he won only one single Munster medal during those five years.
His first two years in the senior red shirt, 2000 and 2001, were also without reward, a team in decline after the All-Ireland defeat of 1999.
But Lady Luck did smile on Canty when the old championship system was done away with in 2001 and the qualifier, back door, system introduced.
It is interesting to note that if Canty had played under the old knock-out system all during his career, he would only have appeared in Croke Park in the concluding stages of the All-Ireland championship in four of his 13 seasons.
When we look back at the past 13 years of Cork football, we are inclined to think of it as a successful era for the Rebels because in that time Cork won one All-Ireland title, four Munster titles and four national league titles.
I suppose in Cork football terms that is classed as success but the truth is that during Canty’s era, the Rebels were under the thumb of a superb Kerry football machine, especially in the championship.
Canty won four Munster medals with Cork in 2002, ‘06, ‘08 and ‘09, but, amazingly, in those four years the team lost to Kerry in Croke Park in three All-Ireland semi-finals and one final.
During the other nine years of Canty’s term, Cork lost to Kerry eight times in Munster. The one exception was a loss to Limerick in 2003.
To say that Canty must have been sick of the sight of the Kerry jersey is surely a gross understatement, yet it was those clashes with Kerry that defined the Bantry man as one of the greats of the game.
Very often when all around him in red were falling apart under pressure, it was Canty who stood his ground like Cúchulainn of old and his refusal to give way to Kerry’s play endeared him with Cork supporters.
At least we had one player who could hold his own with the Kerry men.
Canty achieved greatness as a footballer despite the dominance of the Kingdom over the Rebels during the past 13 years.
The Bantry dynamo also achieved greatness despite the actions of the various managers and selection committees under which he served.
None of them could quite make up their minds where best to play him, utilising his talents in almost every position in defence, at midfield and even at centre forward.
Cork supporters would not have been surprised to see him pop up in goal at some stage.
If there was a star opponent to be marked, Canty was earmarked for the job. If there were holes to be plugged, Canty was the chosen one to stick his finger in the dam. Often in the course of a single game, he would play in numerous positions to bolster an ailing team.
This versatility was a both curse and a blessing to Canty. It meant he never got a real chance to make any position his own, where he could dominate the inter-county scene.
The result was that this outstanding, talented footballer and captain won only three All-Star awards during his career, a very poor return indeed. He deserved much, much more.
But it did give the Bantry man a chance to showcase his many talents in different positions. His superb high fielding was often underestimated and he was a superb reader of a game.
He was a marvellous man to mark a player and was at his most exciting best when raiding forward from the half-back line.
His long stride made him deceptively fast and he had total control of the ball on his solo-runs. In short, Canty had everything a great footballer needs to become great.
Canty achieved hero status despite the type of football Cork began to play under Conor Counihan.
At first Counihan built a physically strong team, which dominated through sheer size and force. They were the first county to do this and it worked, especially in tough league games in poor conditions, four league titles being won.
Being deceptively strong and wiry, this football suited Canty and he thrived until, when other teams began to ape and surpass Cork’s size and strength, Counihan’s team began to play the dreaded lateral, short-passing game.
Being the captain, Canty probably felt he had to lead by example in this new type of football and for a couple of seasons we witnessed a totally different player in the red of Cork than the natural player in his native blue of Bantry.
Canty actually became the fulcrum of the new passing game, passing the ball backwards and sideways more often than he drove it forward.
The Cork fans hated it and to think that they still idoliSed the Bantry man during those bad days shows the great respect they had built up for the Cork captain. He achieved greatness despite the negativity of Counihan’s football.
From 2006, when he tore his cruciate against Kerry and missed most of a season, Canty was prone to injuries.
Never one to shirk a physical challenge, and often the target for opponents in club games, Canty’s body took a fair hammering during the past seven years and he missed a lot of games.
He refused to allow these crippling injuries to thwart his ambition and drive and Cork fans often prayed for his wellbeing, so vital was he to the team.
A Cork team without Canty was never a full team and was regarded as highly vulnerable.
This was never more evident than in the All-Ireland final of 2010 when, recovering from an injury, Canty, the captain, was unable to start but his introduction early in the second half was the difference between Cork winning and losing that game.
Canty was an inspiring figure in the Irish shirt against Australia for many years and that hybrid game brought out the very best in him. The freedom from fixed positions and the ability to play in both defence and attack suited his game admirably. He had the honour of captaining his country in 2004 and was named Player of the Series on one occasion.
He relished the physical challenge posed by the Aussies and never took a backward step in the face of intimidation. The Irish supporters took him to their hearts because of his great attitude.
Of course Canty wasn’t perfect, what hero is? His short passing style under Counihan drove us to despair and we felt he was reneging on his God-given talents for a while.
But these were small flaws in a career that was far from easy but moulded him as a football icon in Cork and beyond.
His legacy in the red shirt is a glorious one, a chapter all of its own in the proud history of Cork GAA.
We were proud to call him a West Cork man, especially when he became only the second native West Cork man to bring the Sam Maguire Cup to own native Carbery division.
His place in Cork GAA is secure, no matter what he achieves with Bantry in the years ahead.
We were privileged to see him in action, from his U12 days to his Sam Maguire day and his legacy is the passing on of the Cork football flame to another generation, in a much healthier condition than when he received it.
Míle buíochas, Graham, agus go mba fada buan thú.