George Kimball’s ‘Four Kings’ tells the story of boxing’s last Golden Age and how four middleweight boxing giants, namely Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran came to dominate the sport throughout the 1980s. Hurling’s Golden Age, or certainly the golden age for scoring, is manifesting itself before our eyes, the protagonists of which continue to distort what we thought possible. In an era of unprecedented marksmanship, Four Kings have emerged from the pack.
As the 2008 All-Ireland Hurling Championship crept into July, the summer had been up to that point, rather devoid of incident and excitement. In Munster, Tipperary had beaten Cork on their own patch for the first time since 1923. Over in Leinster, Kilkenny had commenced their pursuit of the three-in-a-row by subjecting Offaly to a 13-point shellacking. Galway would double that margin a week later against Antrim, as they began their annual voyage through the qualifiers. An unremarkable start to what would prove to be a fairly nondescript championship.
What we didn’t know then, however, was that in the space of twenty days, we had borne witness to a prodigious quartet taking their fledgling steps on the inter-county scene. While their precocity of Messrs Horgan, Callanan, Reid and Canning had been well established at that stage, even the most prescient of hurling experts wouldn’t have envisaged the extent to which they would illuminate the game for years to come.
Since 2008, the foursome has accumulated 104-1381 between them, that’s a few 65’s shy of 1700 total championship points. Annexing the All-time scoring charts, Canning, Horgan, Reid and Callanan currently sit 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th respectively. Between them, they have played 229 championship games, accounting for 29% of their team’s scores, an extraordinary return that is testament to both the longevity and consistency of their careers to date. Their performances over the past twelve seasons have put them on a pedestal above even their most gifted of contemporaries and their scoring yields show no signs of decreasing as they enter the autumnal period of their careers.
Ever since he ran amok against Cork, scoring 2-12 just three games into his maiden season, the ‘over-reliance on Joe Canning’ trope has been a stick with which to beat the Tribesmen whenever they have come up short. Since his debut against Antim in ’08, Canning has played 57 games for Galway, missing only four (three of which came this year). The fact that Canning has been responsible or 34% of Galway’s scores in those games suggests there is a modicum of truth behind the argument.
The same could be said for Horgan, whose points total has increased almost linearly since taking over the free-taking duties from Ben O’Connor in 2011. Since then, his points per game average hasn’t dropped below 8.7 (ironically coming in 2013 when Cork reached the All-Ireland final). A common perception surrounding Horgan has been that his contribution from play hasn’t matched his free-taking excellence. In fact, Horgan’s points per game ratio from play hasn’t dropped below two since 2010 and he has accrued more points from play than Reid or Canning over the past twelve seasons.
While Cork and Galway were relying heavily on their precocious talents to carry the scoring burden, the wealth of attacking talents available to Kilkenny and Tipperary meant that both Reid and Callanan would have to bide their time before becoming their county’s primary marksmen. Prior to the start of the 2014 championship, Reid (40 points) and Callanan (65 points) had barely registered 100 championship points between them. That year, however, both would assume dead ball responsibilities, Reid taking over from Eoin Larkin and Callanan from Eoin Kelly. The pair would end the year with All Stars as well as Player of the Year nominations, Callanan supplementing his free-scoring tally with a remarkable 9-16 from play, an early indication of his penchant for goals.
Callanan’s numbers are even more laudable when you consider that he has only spent four seasons as Tipperary’s primary free-taker (2014 – 2017). 68% of Callanan’s scoring tally has come from play, by far the highest proportion of the four. If you were to look solely at his points total from play, Callanan would still infiltrate the top twenty all-time scorers list, a couple of places above Dublin’s Paul Ryan who incidentally also started out in 2008.
Between them, the four have amassed fourteen All-Star Awards. Considering the virtuosity of their performances this year, it is probable that Callanan, Reid and Horgan will add one apiece to that total. It is not inconceivable that Shefflin’s all-time scoring record will be surpassed by at least two of the Class of ’08 within the next three years. Either way, the exploits of Horgan, Callanan, Reid and Canning have imbued the game with moments of magic that can’t be captured in record tables, feats of individual brilliance which have transcended parochial rivalries and enthused the hurling community as a whole.
And they’re not finished yet. Cherish it. As Kimball alluded to, we may never see their likes again.