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JASON O’REILLY – A Breff-taking career

TEN minutes remaining in a particularly frantic Ulster final. A dinked pass from Peter Reilly is collected by Damien O’Reilly, who uses his bull strength to hold off Derry player Johnny McBride.

He tees up second-half substitute Jason O’Reilly, loitering on the edge of the penalty square waiting to pounce – and BANG, the ball is in the back of the net.

It turned out to be Cavan’s last score of the game, and it’s fitting that Jason O’Reilly is still most associated with the decisive goal of the Ulster Championship final of 1997, sealing their first provincial crown in 28 long years.

To say he had a knack of scoring goals would be an understatement – he scored 12 of them in championship football – and he attributes it to childhood necessity as much as anything else (where he grew up in Belturbet, kicking points invariably resulted in broken windows).

O’Reilly was only 20 years old when he emerged as Cavan’s goal-scoring hero in the 1997 decider, and he thought that the good times would last forever.

It’s hard to blame him for such wide-eyed optimism – his club Belturbet won their first Junior Championship crown in 58 years back in 1995, and they added the Intermediate title for good measure in 1996. Winning trophies seemed like the most natural thing in the world, but the rest of his playing career wasn’t quite so lucrative.

And even though he was tearing it up with his club in the mid-90s, he actually failed to make the Cavan minor set-up, though it wasn’t long before he was in county colours.

He played a major role as the Breffni county reached the All-Ireland U-21 final in 1996, narrowly losing to Kerry (of course, he scored a goal that day). A laid-back sort, he said he wasn’t unduly bothered to miss out on minor football.

“The minor manager was one of my school teachers and we just didn’t see eye-to-eye. I heard later on that he was planning to bring me in if we got by Monaghan in the first round, but Monaghan beat us by a point.

“I wasn’t a bit annoyed, I was just happy to be playing football with my club. It didn’t hit me until I was at the Ulster final in 1995, a fella hit me a nudge and said ‘you should be out there’ and I laughed at him. But he said ‘no, I’m ****ing deadly serious, you should be out there.’”

It wasn’t long before he was mingling with Cavan legends like Stephen King and Damien O’Reilly in the senior set-up.

“They were very welcoming, I remember Fintan Cahill saying to me ‘once you’re in, the hardest part is getting out’, and he wasn’t far wrong as I ended up there for 15 years.

“I suppose it was a bit of a roller-coaster, heading to training and playing with the county was a bit of an eye-opener to me because all we really did with Belturbet was run laps of the field.”

Cavan went into the 1997 Ulster final final as underdogs, but their manager Martin McHugh told them to ignore the press and they went toe-to-toe with Derry from the opening whistle. It was a ferociously competitive contest, yet Reilly held his nerve when the opportunity arose to slot the ball beneath Damian McCusker on a sweltering day at Clones.

Subsequently O’Reilly lifted his shirt over his head in a tribute to former Juventus and Middlesbrough player Fabrizio Ravanelli, but it wasn’t a spur of the moment thing – he’d concocted the idea with now-Cavan manager Mickey Graham in training.

“We said if we came on and got a goal, we’d do a Ravanelli. Little did I think it would turn out to be the winning score, but we were confident going in that day.

“Martin (McHugh) didn’t really put us in the bracket of being underdogs. He told us to keep away from the papers, and to keep away from people who’d want to talk about the football. He just told us to focus on ourselves and the final came around quickly enough after the semi-final.

“I suppose people know me for scoring the goal and I can’t complain about that. I got my opportunity, it was the stuff dreams were made of, the buzz from the crowd and the whole lot of it.”

It was a case of the right man in the right place at the right time as O’Reilly scored the only goal of the game, and he says that his love of scoring goals didn’t really happen by chance.

“I always had an eye for goal. When I was a youngster I was always played in corner-forward or full-forward so I stayed close to the goals. My height was a factor as well, I was a small fella at underage level.

“I remember playing for the u-14s and I was about 10 at the time, and a commentator said ‘this wee fella’s only four balls high’.

“Also growing up, I couldn’t really kick points where we lived. I’d broken too many windows down through the years. My poor mother. I’d say she needed a bank loan I’d that many windows broken. I’d say everyone knew it was me. That’s why I had to keep it low more than anything else!”

The Breffni county were riding the crest of a wave but underperformed in their All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry. In hindsight, O’Reilly sees it a major missed opportunity as Kerry were no great shakes at the time.

“I suppose back then we were glad to win an Ulster title, but when you look back, the All-Ireland was there for the taking.

“Kerry beat us narrowly in the All-Ireland U-21 final down in Thurles the previous year, and we’d beaten Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“They had lads playing for them like Ollie Murphy, Darren Fay, Mark O’Reilly and they went on to win the All-Ireland title at senior level.

“We beat a good Meath side and we could’ve got something out of the Kerry game in the U-21 final had the game lasted another few minutes.”

O’Reilly has hazy recollections of the 1997 All-Ireland semi-final – as in the Ulster final, he came on and scored a goal, but you can tell he doesn’t boot up old videos of matches.

“I did play that day but I can’t remember if I was taken off or came on as a sub. I’m not sure whether I got a goal in that game…I’d have to look back on it. My mother keeps all the cuttings out. People have given me stuff over the years and I’d say ‘jeez I remember that’, but my mother would keep all the clippings from underage right up.”

Disappointingly for Cavan, McHugh stepped down at the end of 1997. Ex-Down star Liam Austin came on board as his replacement but it didn’t work out and he and his four selectors stepped down en masse after less than a single season at the helm.

O’Reilly said: “It was a shame alright when Martin left, but I was young and knew somebody else would come in and figured I’d be able to impress them. The way I looked at it was that I’d still be there.”

With Val Andrews as manager, they reached the Ulster final in 2001 but lost narrowly to Tyrone. The late Cormac McAnallen scored the goal that proved to be the winning of the game, and O’Reilly admits that the Red Hands were deserving victors.

“We had some disappointing years, especially before the backdoor came in as we only had one bite of the cherry.

“We got to the Ulster final in 2001 and we weren’t too far away, but I suppose on the day we were second best.

“A final is a two-horse race so it was still disappointing not to get a second title.”

Derry legend Eamonn Coleman came on board as manager after a golden spell on the Cavan club scene with Gowna. O’Reilly has fond memories of the charismatic Coleman, and he also had a high-powered backroom team that included Martin McElkennon and Damian Cassidy.

“Eamonn always said what he thought and that was the bottom line, he never spruced it up or anything like that. He always called a spade a spade and he had a good backroom team. He was a serious man but he had fun too.

“Damian Cassidy was great as well, when he spoke the hairs stood up on the back of your neck. He’d a real passion and drive about him, he was definitely very good and he showed that at club level. I’d have followed him over the years and he won two championships with Clonoe in Tyrone out of nothing really. He just has that pure passion.”

Cavan had some good and bad days at the time – they drew with Tyrone in 2005 before getting thumped in the replay, and they gave Armagh their fill of it in an Ulster Championship clash in 2004 despite playing with 14 men for nearly the entirety of the contest.

Looking back, their failure to bag any silverware, O’Reilly says the team struggled with a lack of strength in depth.

“We played with 14 men against Armagh and were beaten by two points. But I’m sure if you speak to anyone from Armagh, they’d say they should’ve won more All-Irelands than they did.

“I suppose you take what’s in front of you rather than regretting what you missed out on, but years down the line you start to think that we could’ve won another Ulster title or two.

“You look at Dublin now and they’re unbelievable, but the likes of Dublin and Kerry have great players on the bench who mightn’t even get game-time.

“We were struggling beyond the 17th or 18th man. I remember when we were beaten in the 2001 Ulster final thinking if we just had one or two more good men on the bench we could’ve got over the line. We were total underdogs. We were rebuilding at the time so in reality we probably exceeded expectations even by getting to an Ulster final.”

O’Reilly says he never felt like throwing the towel in as the sheer privilege of lining out for the county kept him coming back during the lean years.

“Any day you put on the Cavan jersey is a great day. I was hurt when we were beaten but also delighted when we won.

“It was all about the pride of the jersey – wearing it, representing your club and your family. I know we had bad years, but I was able to look myself in the mirror and say that I’d given it everything. Once you did that you could hold your head up high, and I definitely put everything I could into it.

On the same theme, O’Reilly says that he lived a monastic lifestyle for most of the year during his playing days with Cavan.

“I trained really hard and I’m a postman so I was regularly in bed by 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening, and I wouldn’t drink for the entire time – from January right until the football was finished.

“The social life was totally gone, you wouldn’t be out, you wouldn’t go to weddings or anything like that.

“It was just a personal thing. Some of the boys would drink a bit and others wouldn’t. It was just the way I was, I was focusing on the football and nothing else at the time.

“There were no drinking bans or anything like that, and I was happy enough with the couple of months I did get drinking!

“You’re always going to get a couple of lads who’ll shake the barrel, and were probably all the better for having a few drinks as maybe it calmed them down a bit. It wasn’t for me anyway.”

O’Reilly also said that he struggled massively with adjusting to club football after being knocked out of the championship with Cavan.

“You’d often go home on Sunday evenings after being beaten and wondering ‘I’m after giving my all for six or seven months and that’s how it ended’.

“That was when I might go on a rip of drink, trying to block it out I suppose. Championship was the big thing in those days, the league didn’t matter so much. Then when you were knocked out you were nearly playing club championship the following week and your head and your heart wasn’t in it.

“Talk to any county player and they’ll say the same thing, that it takes a couple of weeks to adjust. Lads would say ‘aw championship this weekend’, and they no more want it. They’re just mentally drained more than anything else, but pressure comes on from clubs that they have to play.

“If they don’t play, lads will say ‘they don’t care about the club.’ I’ve managed a few club teams and I suppose I have an awareness of what they’re going through. It’s hard to get them out of that zone, it’s very hard to mentally adjust. I remember we played in front of Kerry in front of 60 thousand people and then the following week I was playing in front of 100 people, and I was thinking ‘Jesus Christ, what’s after happening?’”

In terms of his toughest opponents, O’Reilly singles out Fermanagh’s Barry Owens as a particularly tigerish marker.

“Fermanagh were always difficult to play against. Barry Owens was excellent, and a fella Michael Lilly was very good.

“The Fermanagh lads were always hard fellas. If one didn’t get you there’d be another one waiting. They had good years back then, and they probably should’ve beaten us in the 1997 championship. They missed a late chance from 20 yards and I’d say they’re still kicking themselves.

“Tyrone were a running team so you got some space against them. Armagh put Enda McNulty on me sometimes and I remember he just stuck to me the entire game, he wasn’t dirty or anything like that.

“Chris Lawn used to mark me as well. Ricey’ (Ryan McMenamin) used to come over an odd time but he just couldn’t stir me at all. He’d go over to Larry Reilly and Larry would see red. ‘Ricey’ used to love that. He didn’t bother me at all, I’d always be delighted when someone started on me because I’d think their mind wasn’t on the game.

“Larry used to bite alright, but he was well able to stand up for himself. Myself and Larry would be fairly close, the two wives are close as well. He actually built my house and he’s over his own club Knockbride this year so I said I’d give him a hand when I can.”

O’Reilly’s Cavan career came to an abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying end in 2009 when Tommy Carr was appointed as manager. He wasn’t happy with the lack of communication on Carr’s part, and believed he still had enough in the tank to give it another year even though he was 34 at the time.

“Here, it wasn’t that I hung up the boots. Tommy Carr came in and I was planning to go again but I never got the call and that was that. I didn’t even get a call to say ‘you’re not in our plans’ or anything like that.

“It was a bitter way to go. I’m not sure what I was looking for but I thought it was harsh that I didn’t even get a call to say you’re not wanted. I’m not sure what the story was.

“I came back to the club and got Senior Player of the Year in Cavan, so I think maybe that showed that I still had the ability. I think I got my own back on him. I thought there was another year or so in me anyway. That’s the way it goes, that’s life.”

His days of donning the Cavan jersey didn’t end, however, as he decided to give it a go with their Junior team. In doing so, he finished his intercounty career having played against every county team in Ireland.

“My last game was in Kilkenny. Our Junior team needed numbers so I said I’d give it a go. I remember going down to play Kilkenny and someone said ‘you must have all the counties played’ and I said ‘I will after this one’. I played in every single county grounds. Kilkenny only had a Junior team so I’m probably one of very few people who have played every county.”

Remarkably, at the age of 44, O’Reilly is still lining out with Belturbet’s senior team when he can.

“I turn 45 in August. I’m still fit and training away, and I suppose I’m a lot cuter now with the training. I know a lot about the strength and conditioning side of things and know what my body is able for and not able for.”

He’s also carved out a successful managerial career. He won an Intermediate title with Lacken, brought his home club Belturbet to Division One and won the Senior Championship with Cavan Gaels in 2017. The Gaels can be inconsistent, but he was able to get the best out of former county teammates like Seanie Johnston and Michael Lyng, and they ended up reaching the Ulster final where they were beaten by a serious Sleacht Néill team.

“I was honest with the Cavan Gaels lads from day one. I’m a players’ man and knew what they were looking for. I told them a few home truths and was honest as soon as I got in the door until I left.

“I’ve great memories there, they’re a great bunch of lads and still have close friendships with a lot of them. They’re still a top team and I believe there’s probably another championship in them if they want it badly enough.

“It was alright managing the likes of Seanie and Michael, but I had to be honest with them too. I was there to win and that was the bottom line, and if lads weren’t pulling their weight, you have to tell them to their faces rather than behind their backs. Seanie and Michael are going into management now at Cuchulainn’s, it’ll be interesting to see how they get on.”

On the one regret from their Ulster final defeat to Derry titans Sleacht Néill, he said: “We went out and played the same way we did all year. Sleacht Néill are a serious team and we did well to get to the Ulster final. The only regret, and it’s only a small one, is that I didn’t make more subs and give everyone a run out. We were beaten by seven or eight points and I think I should’ve brought on more of the lads.”

O’Reilly is now part of the Leitrim set-up, drafted in by manager Terry Hyland, a man who still bleeds Cavan football. They reached the Division Four final two years ago but they’re coming off the back of a poor league campaign.

“Terry’s a football man, a passionate man, and he loves Cavan football but he loves the challenge in Leitrim as well. He’s like Eamonn Coleman, he calls a spade a spade and that’s what’s good about him.

“They managed to get to the league final two years ago, but things aren’t going too well at the minute. The boys came back in great nick but things just seem to have collapsed in the last few weeks. They have some great players who’d get on any county team but the problem is that the club football isn’t competitive enough. If they give the ball away at club level they’ll get it back, but teams in Division Four are set up well and if they lose the ball they’re getting punished for it. I suppose that’s why things have gone wrong so far this year.”

O’Reilly has also witnessed his former teammate Mickey Graham earn a reputation as one of the best managers in Ireland.

“Mickey’s going well. Dermot McCabe is in there too, and it’s probably a good cop, bad cop type of thing – Dermot the bad guy trying to get the best out of the players and Miickey there to patch things up afterwards.

“He’s done a fierce job and it was the same with Mullinalaghta as well. He seems to be doing it his way. He’s the same as any other manager in the sense that you need a bit of luck as well.

“They call him the ‘Big S’ because he’s a ****-stirrer, they say you wouldn’t believe the radio in his house with the lies he’ll tell you. He’s getting the best out of his players so he’s definitely doing something right.”

O’Reilly does, however, take the opportunity to send Graham a message about his team this year. Graham gave youth his chance in the league, but O’Reilly believes some of the talented young players should be released to the u-20 team.

“There’s a lot of good young fellas in the county. They’ve a great u-20 team this year and it’ll be an awful pity if Mickey doesn’t release the four u-20 players who are on his senior team. They’d win the Ulster U-20 championship comfortably, I have no doubt about that.

“Hopefully they sit down with the u-20 management team, and I think it’d be good for the players themselves because lads want to play with their own age group. I suppose Cavan’s Ulster Championship is on the line against Tyrone, and if they’re beaten, people will say ‘why didn’t you release the u-20s?’ It’s a bit of a no-win situation. I suppose it depends on what Cavan show up – no-one gave them a chance last year either and look where it all ended up.”

In parting, he also wonders whether last year’s unexpected Ulster final win will be remembered quite as fondly as the 1997 victory as it was played behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“When you’re playing county football, the years fly back so quickly it’s unbelievable. I was chatting to a lad who knows his football, he’s a fierce Cavan man, and he said ‘no-one will remember we won Ulster in 2020’. I said ‘Jesus that’s a bit funny’, and he said ‘nobody got to celebrate it, everyone knows what happened in 1997′.

“He might be right, if you ask someone in 10 years’ time what year did Cavan win Ulster, all they’ll know is Covid and they won’t know if it was 2019, 2020 or 2021. That’s the unfortunate thing, no-one really got to celebrate it.”

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30 May 2004; Cavan players, l to r, Dermot McCabe, Anthony Forde and Jason O’Reilly celebrate their sides victory over Down. Bank of Ireland Ulster Senior Football Championship Replay, Cavan v Down, Kingspan Breffni Park, Co. Cavan. Picture credit; Matt Browne SPORTSFILE

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17 July 2005; Jason O’Reilly, Cavan, is tackled by Graham Geraghty, Meath. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier, Round 3, Meath v Cavan, St. Tighernach’s Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit; Damien Eagers SPORTSFILE

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HAPPY DAYS…O’Reilly led Cavan Gaels to an Ulster final appearance

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HEAD DOWN…O’Relly in action against Down’s Kevin McGuigan and Daniel McCartan in an Ulster Championship match in 1997

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SOAKING IT IN… Jason O’Reilly, Damien Reilly and Larry Reilly pictured after Cavan’s Ulster Championship final victory over Derry in 1997

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24 August 1997; Jason Reilly of Cavan in action against Barry O’Shea of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Cavan and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Matt BrowneSportsfile

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