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Blueblood Reilly still leading the charge

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Thursday, 23rd November, 2017 1:16pm

Blueblood Reilly still leading the charge

Eamonn Reilly (centre) with Karol Crotty and Jason O'Reilly.

After 16 glorious years, many of them as captain, with the Cavan Gaels senior team, it all ended for Eamonn Reilly three years ago this month in a league semi-final defeat, off Broadway on a chilly Sunday in Kingscourt.

The week before, the Gaels had been beaten by a single point in Owenbeg against Slaughtneil in an Ulster Club quarter-final. Now, five days out from another tussle with the Derrymen, Reilly will be very much involved again, only this time on the other side of the whitewash.

“It's gone full circle you could say,” 'Chesty' smiled. Having worn the no 6 jersey for so long, when the call came this year to don a bib, he didn't have to think twice.

“Anthony Forde asked me to be a selector with him last year and I told him if I was able to give the commitment to be a selector, I'd still be able to play, that kind of way.

“Then Jason rang at the start of this year and he had a different kind of a plan in place. He wanted me to take the Dublin lads for training in Dublin to save them driving up and down and I wouldn't have to make the weekend stuff myself until it got to the games.

“I went away and thought about it and came back and bit his hand off because it's great to be back involved.”

He's made his peace with no longer being a player, even if he still “misses it massively”.

By the end, leaving the capital in the early evening and making the trek for Terry Coyle Park just got too much for a man who embodied the swagger and drive of that great Gaels team. He was worn down by the journey but, this year, he's back. Mad for road.

“Every time I went out with the Gaels jersey on was a real honour for me. I never actually announced retirement or said I was retired or anything like that, I just kind of let it fade away.

“I suppose the way Gaelic football is gone, the amount of time and effort you have to put into it, travelling up and down the road for 16 or 17 years took its toll in the end. For the last championship I gave it everything I had but I had kind of ear-marked at the start of that championship that that was going to be that.

“It's a lot different. I wouldn't be the best man to watch a game, the adrenaline and the nerves kick in, but I've enjoyed it this year, the role I've been given is as a runner, getting messages from Jason out to the lads. That occupies you.

“You have to take a step back from it too, keep an eye on players, think about things and remove yourself from things as best you can during games.”

A lot has changed since that Slaughtneil loss in 2014. On the field, the Gaels went through a period of transition, failing to advance deep in the championship draw.

That was merely consmetic compared to what they lost off it. The sudden passing of Reilly's uncle JJ – a father figure to many and a man who, either as a player or coach, was associated with every championship win back to the 1970s – cast a pall of sadness over the entire Cavan football fraternity. 

While he won't be in Armagh on Sunday, JJ's influence remains.

“We don't harp on about it or anything like that,” sighs his nephew, “but at JJ's grave, there are two stones. One of them has 'fast hands' on it and the other one has 'believe'.

“So we took it this year that we have to have belief in ourselves, that if we're down in a match we can come back. JJ was always a great believer in that. That's one of our mantras for the year, to believe, and we'll be using that on Sunday as well.

“We brought the cup out to him after winning the county final. It was an emotional time for everyone. At the start of the game, we weren't using it as a motivational thing but at the same time he would always be at the back of the lads' minds.

“That's the big plus for me this year, the way they have never given up and the heart that they've shown. In the Derrygonnelly game, we won it, we lost it, we won it, we lost it and then came back in and won it again. It was one of those games where we cold have thrown in the towel three times.

“It's a great sign of a young team, or any team, that just doesn't want to give up.”

 

Famously, despite dominating within their own county, Cavan Gaels failed to progress to an Ulster Club final. For observers of football in this county, their inability to translate 'domestic' form to Ulster was baffling.

They rolled the dice nine times but the numbers never fell their way and it's something that haunts Reilly, who puts a lot of it down to just that – blind chance and sheer dumb luck.

“Absolutely. One of my big regrets would be not getting to an Ulster Club final. I definitely think we had the teams that were good enough to do it. 

“Luck has a lot to do with results at this time of year, there is rarely more than a couple of points between the teams.

“We met some great teams, Crossmaglen, Ballinderry, Slaughtneil, St Gall's, who all went on to play in All-Ireland finals. And we were always on the wrong side of a point or two, we never got hockeyed by any of those teams.

“I think it was a small bit of luck, if we had've got that on one or two of those occasions, God knows where we could have gone. It will always be a regret of mine.

“But the lads this year have righted those wrongs, they've got a little bit of luck on the way but that's what you need, they never give up in any game and they're getting their reward now.”

  • Above: Paul O'Connor palms in a goal against Derrygonnelly. Photos: Adrian Donohoe

The feeling in the Gaels camp this week is, he says, “brilliant”. They nursed some aches on Monday and Tuesday and will return to the pitch tonight (Wednesday) for a light session. Everything is geared towards freshness and the peak performance which will be required.

“Slaughtneil are a quality team. They've proven that. They have a very high fitness level. I watched them against Kilcar and they were breaking out of defence at will, even with five minutes to go. 

“They seem to have great engines, Chrissy McKaigue driving forward, the two midfielders, Karl McKaigue is a good defender as well and then Christopher 'Sammy' Bradley up front pulls a lot of strings.

“They deserve to be favourites given what they've achieved in the last few years. 

“They are probably the new Crossmaglen up the north, they win a lot of close games by a point or two. It's going to be a battle on Sunday but if you're not in it, you can't win it.

“We've earned the right to be in the final so we'll have a cut at them.”

Regardless of how Sunday goes, 2017 has been a remarkable success for Cavan Gaels, their manager and, of course, their new selector.

In time, he could see himself stepping up to the bainisteoir bib, too.

“If things went well I definitely would like to be a manager, to see would I be any good at it. It's probably a natural progression for most players.”

Last question, then. Would he ever manage another team? The reply comes quickly and emphatically, with a hint of incredulity that it's even been asked.

“In Cavan? Absolutely no way. I couldn't bring myself to do it. Not a chance.”

Gaels to the backbone. Just as we expected.

 

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