Three-time amateur golf champion and Shane Lowry’s fitness coach, Robbie Cannon, made another name for himself assisting John Sugrue to successive promotions with Laois. Now he’s bringing his expertise to Tipperary’s footballers in their hunt for promotion from Division Three of the Allianz League
Late Tuesday afternoon and Robbie Cannon has made some time for a coffee and a chat.
An interview chased before Christmas had to be postponed on a couple of occasions largely due to a hectic schedule. If it wasn’t work with Tipperary footballers then it was flying out to Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates to oversee Shane Lowry’s early-season fitness sessions.
That’s not to mention his own preparations for the home amateur season and strength and conditioning work with other clients.
Rathcoole’s Poitín Stil is a suitable meeting place as he heads to Thurles to advise a couple of interns he’s hoping will assist him in implementing a S&C programme across the board for the county’s football teams.
His journey down the M7 might have been much shorter but for John Sugrue surprisingly stepping down as Laoismanager last July.
Following back-to-back promotions, the senior team were going in the right direction even if their conclusion to the 2019 Championship was disappointing. Cannon bid adieu to Laois also.
“I am really good friends with John and we obviously built up a great relationship and with the rest of the management team. I knew he was going to step aside but I talked him into staying only he changed his mind again.
"He had his own reasons for that. I felt I had a lot of loyalty to my friend there. He had visions for Laois and when he realised it wasn’t going to work out for him it was the right time for me to go too. John has gone down now to Kerry with the U20s and no doubt he’ll do a great job there.”
Such is his respect for Sugrue that Cannon sees him taking the senior Kingdom position in the future.
“I’ve no doubt he’ll be a future Kerry manager. There were a few occasions when I would have put on my boots to play for him, he’s that passionate a guy and a great coach and physio. He’s a great sports scientist too so he ticks a lot of boxes.”
Speaking to this newspaper last year, Sugrue spoke of the importance of the various Laois teams coming together and working on the same strength and conditioning programmes albeit at different stages.
Cannon explained: “We saw the bit of success with the Laois minors last year just from a physical standpoint. The guys that were in the first year at U16s were so big and strong in their second year at U17.
"I see my role as S&C coach to prepare these guys for the hustle and bustle of senior football so that when they’re starting at U16 it’s going to be four or five years down the road that they’re ready for it.”
Tipperary are now benefiting from his expertise after Cannon’s mentor, Setanta College founder and former IRFU head of fitness Liam Hennessy, a native of Cappawhite, recommended him to new manager David Power.
Initially, I had to turn him down because I reckoned I would have too much on this year with Shane. Shane wanted me to travel a bit more.
“Then David came back and said he didn’t mind if I missed a couple of weeks especially as I’m not missing any of the matches. So I decided to go in with him.
"I liked him straight away, he’s very passionate about Tipperary football and he has a vision for where he wants to get them and he’s well supported by the county board and has a good team around him. Mickey (McGeehin), Charlie (McGeever) and Paddy (Christie) are great coaches and they have a good goalkeeper coach in Joe Hayes.”
A competitive ball has yet to be kicked but Cannon’s work with Tipperary was the subject of some commentary from Pat Spillane earlier this month.
In hiscolumn, the former Kerry star highlighted how much work the panel were doing over the festive period.
“There isn’t another field game in the world where players train so much and play so little,” Spillane remarked.
“I’m told one county squad met 28 times during the month of November. And there’s more. The Tipp football squad had a busier new year than Liverpool FC.
"This was their itinerary as confirmed by manager David Power: December 30-31: Two-day training camp in Dublin. January 2: McGrath Cup tie against Cork. January 3: Training session. January 5: McGrath Cup tie against Kerry.”
Cannon throws his eyes up at the mention of the piece.
“I play to a high level myself and I work with people who are the highest level in the world.
I’ve worked with athletes, golfers, Gaelic footballers and with everyone you have to put the work in.
"The majority of these Gaelic footballers love playing. I think there has been too much written about it and probably incorrectly. The article by Mr Spillane, he got his facts wrong. First of all, he said it was December 30 and 31 when it was December 29 and 30.
"All we did on the 29th was a gym session and a talk through some tactics and a bit of that on the pitch. We had a team meeting that night, which was brilliant, and the following day we had a game. Each player was only playing 35-38 minutes so the volume of load wasn’t that much.
"What he neglected to mention was that we didn’t do anything for the eight days before that. With the McGrath Cup, there were two very different teams so the volume of that spell wasn’t that high but he made it out like we were flogging them.
“I got several texts and calls about it. It was a pity that he got his facts wrong. He was an amazing player but some of these former players when they’re writing just seem to push this elitist mindset. Where I’m based in Santry, you see athletes there training every single day for the pure love of the sport.
"Some of them aren’t at a national level but they still put in two or three hours a day and you don’t hear them complaining. I think too much has been written about it and a lot by ex-players and a lot of what they’re writing is inaccurate.”
Cannon knows the snake oil merchants and bluffers have given strength and conditioning a bad name. He has the degrees to back up what he preaches but feels there are now more people involved in intercounty football who know what they are talking about.
“I think education has got so much better. I think a lot of coaches now are sticking to basic principles. Five to 10 years ago, there may have been a bit more of that (bluffing).
If you spend some minutes on Twitter or Instagram you will see lads who aren’t doing the right stuff but in the world of Gaelic football the level of expertise is pretty good, there are a lot of good coaches.
Everyone at intercounty level is pretty well qualified and clued-in to what they’re doing.”
As Hennessy so often tells Cannon, there are dangers in extremes. The 40-year-old has no hesitation in proclaiming Hennessy as the man who has shaped his career — on the golf course and off it.
“He’s a phenomenal man and I’ve been so lucky to have him as a mentor. Any time I have a question, like I remember after I took the Tipperary role sitting down with him over a couple of cups of coffee and having a great chat about things like my career and how I saw the Tipperary set-up and how we could improve it.
"He’s always been there for me.”
Cannon was first put in touch with Hennessy prior to winning the 2009 South of Ireland Championship. John Kelly, who coached him at the time, was heavily involved in the Titleist Performance Institute and recommended Cannon be assessed by Hennessy.
Then running a services-based industrial chemical business, the youngster was hooked by the coaching drug. “I was always training but probably doing the wrong stuff. I went back to college through Liam and Setanta College.”
The Balbriggan man has been able to call on the expertise of Jim Gavin too after they struck up a relationship at a Friends of Dublin Football benefit lunch a few years ago.
We ended up having a couple of pints at that one of the times and ended up going out to play golf. We might send a couple of texts here and there. I haven’t chatted to him since he resigned but he’s a great man.
“What he’s achieved... I know a couple of the players and the respect they have for him — when he resigned they were absolutely devastated. He’s put in unbelievable service. He’s a man of zero ego and that’s one of the things I have tried to take from him.”
Ciarán Kilkenny, a native of Castleknock where Cannon lives now, joined him and Lowry for a game of golf on his way back from the recent Dublin team holiday in Bali. Kilkenny and Dean Rock were in Portrush for that magical Open winning Sunday last July.
Cannon still smiles — probably always will — when Lowry’s achievement is mentioned. He had been with him earlier in the week and returned there on Saturday and Sunday to provide support although he knew his man was a winner alright after the third round.
“The Saturday night, Conor (Ridge) Shane’s manager, Bo (Martin) his caddie, Gary Murphy and myself went up to Bushmills. The guys were nervous enough but I was like, ‘What are you worried about, guys? This is all over.’
“It was a calculated assumption because I had seen the weather, he was playing with Tommy Fleetwood who he would be very friendly with and Tommy had never won a Major and there was a big gap to the next man.
“We had dinner before that in the house Saturday night and Shane was so calm and serene. I never had a moment’s doubt; I was pretty much celebrating on the Saturday night. I was proven right but I was comfortable that he would do it.”
Initially, Cannon’s work with Lowry saw him add over 20 yards to his drive. From there, it’s been a blend of improvement and maintenance.
The week before big tournaments we usually do a block of hard work and that’s worked in the past. We have it all planned out.
“When I first started, his mobility and flexibility was very poor. He wouldn’t have done a lot of training, dribs and drabs, but that was the focus the first few weeks to get him functional. He had a low strength base so we worked on that and the biggest thing was within a few months he got himself 20 yards on his drive and by the end of the season, he had added another few yards.
"He’s a fairly long hitter now and from a physical standpoint that’s where he made the biggest performance improvements. He’s had no injuries in five years and that’s the main focus of my job, to make these guys robust because they put tremendous force through their body when they’re hitting the golf ball.
"The more robust he is, the fitter he is, the better he will to prevent injury and improve his recovery. We’re just trying to increase his clubhead speed all of the time too but avoiding injury is the big focus.”
What Cannon has seen of Lowry since July is not a man content with his lot but one whose appetite has only increased.
“I, and the rest of the team, are just grateful to be a part of the journey that he is on. Neil (Manchip, Lowry’s golf coach) and myself always believed he would win a Major. We probably had more faith in him that he had in himself but we always knew he was going to win a Major. And he’s not finished yet.
He’s gone up another level and I think everything has got a bit better, his confidence, his mental strength, he’s been training great since he won the Open.
“I noticed in Dubai in November that his focus is incredible. It’s something that is going to be a marginal gain for him going forward. He’s a great family, a lovely little girl and a lovely wife and everybody on his team is just doing their utmost to keep him happy and help him achieve his goals. He’s an ambitious and smart guy behind that bubbly exterior. Shane is so mentally tough.
"The things you look for in a golfer are when things are going well you drive on and he’s always been like that and when it goes the other way he has the ability to bounce back. The US Open in Medinah, he had a blip for 40 minutes and the other guy (Dustin Johnson) played really well.
Some things happen for a reason. Would he have the Open had we won that
Cannon has his own golf targets beginning with the West of Ireland Championship in April, which actually coincides with the US Masters. Having claimed the South, Irish Amateur (2013), and Irish Close (’18), it’s one of the three itches he wants to scratch.
“I’ve three left and I’m placing a bit more importance on them. I haven’t played the West the last number of years and I have a good record there, beaten in the final and quarter-finals.
"The North and the East, I’ll be around for them as well. I’m trying to get the most out of every single day to practice. It’s something I’m preaching to the players too — get something out of each day to improve yourself.”
He can say with a degree of certainty Tipperary are doing that right now. He knows the importance of the League as a potential escape from the second tier championship
But for now it’s about steeling players for the rigours of Division 3.
“We’ve done a lot of good work already in a couple of months,” he reports, “not just from a physical side but the culture side of it too. The guys have really bought into it and there are so many skillful footballers in Tipp.
It’s exciting to see how they do and there’s a lot of work to do but I’m more than happy with what we’ve done so far.