The ‘Reel’ deal

By Shaun Casey

THE late Majella McKeever, mother of former Armagh captain Ciaran, is credited for starting Stephen Reel on his coaching journey that has worked out more successfully than the former Cullyhanna defender could ever have imagined.

Majella McKeever was the leading figure in getting the girls’ team up and running in Cullyhanna, but one season, she was stuck when looking for a manager. She reached out to her son Ciaran along with his mates Reel and Malachy Mackin to lend a helping hand.

After two championship successes with the ladies, Reel, while still playing for the club, led the men’s u-21 side to five championship final appearances, losing just once, before taking on the big job in 2019 following his retirement from playing at the end of 2018.

“It was myself and Mal and Ciaran Nugent who would have all been involved with those (u-21) teams,” recalled Reel. “We got to five finals in a row and lost one of them but won the other four and believe it or not I was over the Cullyhanna ladies team before that.

“We actually won the Junior and the Intermediate Championships the couple of years we were with them and winning is great, it keeps you going. I didn’t get involved by design, it just happens that way.

“Obviously Ciaran (McKeever) was involved in the county so me and Mal just kept coaching and then the u-21s, there was just no coach for them one year and we said as senior players that we’d step in and take them and that’s how it developed.”

As a player, Reel was a ferocious defender that commanded the edge of the square and lined out in the red, black and yellow in Cullyhanna’s only two Senior final appearances in 2013 and 2016. The St Patrick’s men lost to Crossmaglen and Maghery respectively.

Outside managers Jody Gormley (Trillick) and Mick O’Dowd (Clontibret) guided Cullyhanna to those finals while Eamon McEnaney (Castleblayney) was in charge in 2018 when they reached the semi-finals of the championship, again losing to Crossmaglen.

Reel has endured tough times as the Cullyhanna boss. Emigration, retirements, injuries and county commitments have hindered their progress in recent years, ultimately leading to their relegation from the top tier in 2022.

2023 was all about rebuilding and in doing so, Cullyhanna have enjoyed their most successful period ever. They captured the Armagh Intermediate crown before becoming the first ever team from the Orchard County to land a provincial title at that grade.

“Where Cullyhanna were five years ago, there were a lot of players going travelling, retiring and we were in transition,” added Reel. “We sat down, and we knew there were a few rough years ahead, but we said we’d sit tight and do what we could.

“We knew that those boys that had gone travelling, that they would eventually come back home again, and that cycle would come back around again, that wave would pass and that is what turned out to be the case.

“That’s probably why we’re in the position we’re in now. We just went in to help the club out and do the best we could for the club at all times. That’s what we were doing, there was no real desire to manage to be honest.

“But that’s just the way it happens, and we were happy to go in and help out with whatever was needed and that’s how we all got involved, the whole management team. Myself and Mal, Ciaran was always in the background, Sean Nugent as well.”

The transition from teammate to manager was a fairly simple one for Reel.

That connection with the u-21 sides which currently backbone the senior group, helped with the move.

“Winning with those boys at u-21 level, it was easier obviously to come in at senior level, but it was strange, there’s no doubt about it. When we had the u-21s, our message to them as coaches was that they had to reach the standards to be senior players.

“That u-21 period really helped the transition from player to manage. The transition was good enough but some players did find it strange when you go from playing with them to managing them but generally it was smooth enough.

“Those boys, we’d won with them before and they’re good lads with good attitude and good character and we all want whatever is best for the team. There’s nobody playing as individuals and there’s no egos, everybody just wants what’s best for Cullyhanna.

“Everyone just wanted to get behind the wheel whether it was good times or bad times and that’s the way it was and that’s the way it is at the minute.”

It’s been a long season for the Cullyhanna men. They started preseason in November of 2022 with the goal of climbing back to senior football and over 12 months on, their one game away from Croke Park and an All-Ireland final.

“It is a long haul but winning does make it easier,” explained Reel. “When we won the county championship back in October that gave us a lift, all that training was worthwhile and mentally it keeps the boys going, it gets them out to train.

“That gave the boys a bit of hunger in their bellies, and they wanted more, and they did kick on to win Ulster. Now they’re looking to kick on again. We really enjoyed both those finals and rightly so with a few days celebrating.

“But they called rank themselves and just got back at it again. They pulled the celebrations short, and we sat them down and just refocused to go again. I think when you’re winning trophies and you have big matches in big stadiums, it’s easier to keep going.

“It’s a good position to be in. There’s a good mood in the camp, good belief in it, there’s a good feeling and that winning mentality is what keeps them going. They’re all feeding off that, the young boys in particular.

“The younger boys in our squad, this is the first thing they’ve ever won in their career this season and they’ve got a real shot in the arm with that. The club is in a good place, the community is in a good place, the kids are all buzzing.

“In fairness, it’s easy to come out and train at this time of year when you’re preparing for matches. Our big thing is just keeping mentality at it and keeping focused over the festive period, you just have to get the balance right when you’re on the road so long.

“Ciaran McKeever is in structuring training and we’re getting that balance right between rest and recovery and tough training and intense training, but I think when you’re winning, it’s easier to do all that.”

They face a Johnny Doyle-inspired Allenwood in the semi-final and Reel feels that his side will have to up the ante from their Ulster final display if they want to continue on their historic journey.

“We don’t know much about Allenwood and you’re watching videos and bits and pieces but it’s very hard to get the downlow from that.

“The camera follows the ball and unfortunately you need to see the full pitch when you try to assess a team.

“In that respect we are really focused on ourselves. We probably weren’t at our best in the Ulster final and we know we have improvements to make.

“We had two good performances before the Ballyhaise game (against Pomeroy and Liatroim) and maybe that was down to mentality. Our levels just weren’t good enough.

“It was enough to get over the line and get the job done which is good on one hand, but we do know we can play better so we’re really focusing on our own game and working on what we need to work on.

“When you consider the weather conditions at this time of year with wind and rain, game management is so important when you have elements like that so we’re really just focusing on ourselves.”

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