IN THE echelon of Cavan’s greatest, it’s fair to say that Damien O’Reilly takes a prominent position. Bravery, versatility, skill – the man had it all, but you wouldn’t sense it from talking to him.
It’s fair to say this isn’t a fella with notions, but he reminds us that for most of his career, first-round exits with Cavan were the norm, so why would he look down on the rest of us?
Whatever about that logic (and he did have to wait until the tail-end of his career before achieving most of his success for both club and county), there’s no doubt that he was an absolutely outstanding footballer.
He set up the goal that effectively won the game for Cavan in the 1997 Ulster final, but for most of his playing days, he was a bulwark in defence. Peter Canavan knows all about it: the Tyrone legend ran amok throughout the 1995 championship, but the Ulster final against Cavan was different. O’Reilly stuck to him like a limpet and kept Canavan relatively quiet, which is obviously easier said than done.
That’s without mentioning his famous point against Donegal in 1992, where he volleyed the ball, Van Basten style, from a seemingly impossible angle and somehow managed to hook the ball over the bar. If you can spare a minute, have a watch on YouTube because it’s certainly one of the most unique scores in GAA history.
While most of his decade-long career with Cavan was characterised by early exits, he did, however, play his part in their u-21 team’s run to the All-Ireland final back in 1988. His teammates included the likes of Fintan Cahill and Ronan Carolan, but they fell short in the final against Offaly.
O’Reilly said: “I never played for Cavan as a minor. All the way down I didn’t make it. I was probably a bit small and played at corner-forward. Then I got a bit bigger and was brought into the senior panel in 1988 by Eugene McGee.
“We’d a great run in the u-21 championship as well. Donegal won in ‘87 with a quite a good team and we beat them in 1988 in Cootehill. There wasn’t much thought of the u-21 grade back then – we’d literally play an u-21 game on the Saturday and then have a McKenna Cup game on the Sunday. We did well in fairness.”
O’Reilly hails from the famous club of Mullahoran. Their most celebrated team won a remarkable seven Cavan Senior Championship titles between 1942 and 1950 – a period when the county team was also blazing its own trail. By the time O’Reilly came to maturity in the early nineties, Cavan football was at a fairly low ebb, and they lost four first-round clashes in a row to Donegal.
“The problem was that there was very little success in Cavan, barring in 1983 when they got to the Ulster final against Donegal. We had another another bit of success getting to the All-Ireland u-21 final, and they had to delay the start of the match because of the number of Cavan people.
“As you well know, Cavan have fanatical supporters when they start to see a bit of success, but when I was young, the seniors weren’t going well through nobody’s fault.
“In those barren years we’d a very poor run. We were beaten by Donegal four years in a row – back then the Ulster Council used to pit teams against each other home and away over two years and we just happened to come up against Donegal for four years running.”
O’Reilly’s trump card was his searing pace, but his development as a footballer was hindered when he partially tore his cruciate in 1991. For the rest of his career, his knee gave him bother and it eventually forced him into early retirement after the 1997 season.
“I’d a good burst of pace and it suited me as a back. I was able to win a lot of ball rather than letting my man get the ball and then tackling them. I was very fast off the mark and won a lot of possession in the full-back line, so that’s why I played well around the 1988-1990 period.
“I did my cruciate in 1991 and that knocked me back. I was over in New York in the summer of 1990 and we won the championship over there with Cavan.
“The following February, I was supposed to go to New York for the presentation of medals, they were going to pay for my flight out.
“But Cavan were playing a McKenna Cup game in Antrim in Casement Park and I was captain of the time, and they weren’t going well.
“I thought I’d better stay put and play for Cavan. I was marking a fella Enda McAtamney, I jumped for the ball and landed on one leg. My knee went left and my weight went to the right. I’ve often joked if I’d only gone off to New York I wouldn’t have hurt my knee but anyway.”
As he says himself, the knee was “never 100 per cent ever again” and in more recent years he had to undergo two knee replacements (the first procedure wasn’t a success). It says something about his ability that he remained such a highly regarded player and won all three of his All-Star nominations after suffering the injury – in 1992, 1995 and 1997.
“In 1991 I went to Dublin to see Noel McCaffrey, the father of Jack McCaffrey, and he sent me out to an Orthopaedic surgeon. They didn’t do the operation back then in the Republic – that’s why if you look back at old games, you’ll see so many players with knee bandages and stabilisers. When Donegal won the All-Ireland Noel Hegarty had one.
“The simple reason was that there was a lot of bad knees. I was unfortunate as I played the rest of my career with that problem. In 1993 or 1994 I got an operation but my knee had been loose until that point so all I was doing was ripping the cartilage. By that stage I had numerous scopes on it as well and I’ve had two knee replacements.”
“The main inconvenience as such wasn’t losing a yard of pace, but the amount of effort and time that went into keeping his knee in reasonable nick.
“My biggest problem was maintenance of the knee. I wasn’t able to train fully, I wasn’t able to go at it as hard as I’d like. Every night I’d come home from training, I’d have one of those things with velvet in the inside that you’d have in the freezer, and I’d put it over my knee and pump it with a compressor.
“I was able to manage it through the bad years in 1993 and 1994. Things improved under Martin McHugh but I still had to quit in 1998 when I was only 31. It was too painful and too much of an effort. I only played another year or two with the club as well.”
They did come close to making a breakthrough when they brought eventual All-Ireland champions Donegal to a replay in 1992. In the drawn encounter at Breffni Park, O’Reilly scored the aforementioned volleyed point that has gone down as one of the great nineties scores, but they lost out in the replay and that was it for another year. O’Reilly says it was frustrating not getting the chance to test himself against teams from outside the province.
“Sometimes we’d play in May and then we were finished for the whole summer so it was very disappointing. You put in a lot of effort, so only getting the one game was an awful shame. If there was a backdoor you never know where things could’ve gone as Ulster was so strong back then.
“In general, bar a bit of National League, you only played among your own province. If there was an open draw we’d have got playing down the country in the summer but that obviously never happened.
“I do look back on that Donegal game in 1992 as it was a missed opportunity, they went on to win the All-Ireland. That’s the day I got that flukey point with my left foot! We nearly beat them, then the next weekend we played them again in Ballybofey in the rain. It was disappointing that we never got the chance to build up momentum.”
Things took a turn for the better when Donegal legend Martin McHugh came on board as manager in 1995.
It was possibly a bit of a left-field choice at the time as he’d only just retired, but his tenure was a roaring success as they reached the Ulster final in his first year and they finally got over the line in 1997 with a one-point victory over Derry.
“It probably was [a left-field choice]. I suppose Donegal won the All-Ireland in 1992 and then lost the Ulster final in the rain in 1993 and a few of them drifted away after that.
“I don’t know whether Martin considered taking the Donegal job, some people said he was interested in that, but maybe he wanted to cut his teeth somewhere else.
“He was good, he was thorough and professional, so I was surprised he didn’t go at it again somewhere else. I suppose the work with the media is a more enjoyable type of work.”
One thing McHugh did effectively was introduce talented young players to the fold like Jason O’Reilly and others. Damien was more than happy to see some new faces and says he gelled with everyone on the panel.
“I was very familiar with fellas like Fintan Cahill and Ronan Carolan as we stepped up together in 1988. I was very friendly with Stephen King as well, but I had a good relationship with the younger fellas as well.
“The likes of Jim Reilly finished up in 1995 so Martin was keen to give an opportunity to everyone, the older lads, the lads in the middle and the new breed of u-21s.
“Some of the older lads retired the next year and lads like Peter and Larry Reilly, Anthony Forde and all those lads came in, so there was a good impetus there.
“I actually got on well with everyone and I’m not just saying that. That’s what really pushed us on in 1996 and 1997, there was a good blend of youth and experience. McHugh came in and gave everyone a little bit of a lift.”
Winning the Ulster final in 1997 was a momentous achievement for Cavan. In doing so, they won their first provincial title in 28 years, so it was a huge weight off the shoulders for a county conscious of the glories of the past. It’s a game that Cavan fanatics know the ins and outs of already, but it’s worth mentioning the game-winning score as Damien teed up goal-machine Jason O’Reilly for the only goal of the game with ten minutes to go. That gave Cavan a slender lead and the Oak Leafers failed to damage the scoreboard in the closing minutes.
“We got over Donegal in the semi-final, they were in transition and McHugh that knew that. Then we had Derry in the final and you could argue they were in transition as well. Many of their players had a lot of mileage at that stage…maybe I’m being unfair on ourselves. They had (Joe) Brolly, Dermot Heaney, (Anthony) Tohill and Kieran McKeever so possibly I’m not giving us enough credit.
“I suppose we definitely thought we’d be there or thereabouts if we got our act together and that’s why there was such a big push in 1997.
“Another factor is that in the early nineties we were in the lower divisions but we’d moved up the ranks in 1995 and 1996 and that definitely helped us as well.”
Another reason for their Ulster triumph was that they’d a familiar pre-match routine at that stage. Clones was like a home away from home.
“Things were very consistent. We used to go to Newtownbutler for our warm-up and then cut across to Clones. Most of our games were in Clones so we were very familiar with the process.
“Another thing that stands out is the unbelievable support from the Cavan people, the blue and white on the hill, and we reception we got back in Cavan and the next day.
“ It was 30 years since we’d last won Ulster so it brought joy to so many people.”
The Breffni county were riding the crest of a wave, but they failed to play to their potential against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. O’Reilly concurs that it was an opportunity missed.
He said: “It was possibly Kerry’s poorest team to win an All-Ireland, it certainly wasn’t one of their strongest anyway.
“We were leading by a point, I think, at half time, and it’s just a shame we weren’t able to push on and maybe have a bit more belief in ourselves.
“I just think we lacked that bit of belief all over. You’d players who’d been around a good number of years, and I’m not saying we were happy to get to that stage, but we probably just didn’t believe we could win the All-Ireland.
“Then the younger lads had only been in the team a year or two and probably thought it would be a regular thing.
“Somewhere in the middle we fell down against Kerry. We prepared well and if only we’d have been properly focused we definitely would’ve won the All-Ireland.
“I think we did a lot of things well on the day but I don’t think deep down we had the same belief that we could beat Kerry as we did with Derry. Maybe it was the Kerry factor and it might’ve been different if we’d been playing Mayo, I don’t know.”
Martin McHugh stepped aside and Cavan failed to reach the same heights in the following seasons.
“We didn’t have the same willingness to put our shoulder to the wheel the following year. McHugh quit, I stopped playing, Stephen King stopped playing. A lot of people walked away. It wasn’t until last year that we got back to win another Ulster title, it was too long for Cavan and any county really.”
He actually stepped in as interim manager for two games, but he and the players knew it was only a temporary arrangement.
“Mattie Kerrigan came in after Martin, he only stayed a short period and then we’d two matches in the National League before Christmas.
“I’d just retired and they wanted someone to tide us over. I was manager for games against Tyrone and Dublin and we lost both of them. I think we’d given up the ghost that year. Then Liam Austin came in and it didn’t really go well.”
However, 1998 was still a good year for O’Reilly on a personal level as he finally won a Senior Championship title with Mullahoran. He’d lost three previous finals with the ‘Dreadnoughts’ and he admits there was plenty of periods of frustration during his career.
“There was, you sometimes felt it was happening for everyone bar ourselves. I think it was even more difficult for me as I was trying to mind my knee and I was worried about how long I could keep going for. It was definitely difficult to stay motivated when things weren’t going well.”
His club finally got over the line with a surprisingly comfortable victory over a coming Cavan Gaels team, who ended up dominating football in the county for more than a decade.
“Mullahoran were a senior team throughout my career and we’d lost a couple of finals to Gowna. The problem was Gowna were such a good team at the time. We’d actually four or five clubmen on the county panel in the early nineties.
“We were on the wrong side of a couple of tight results unfortunately and it was 1998 before we got over the line.
“Gowna were a bit on the slide that year and Cavan Gaels were the improving team.
“We just had that belief and hunger, and once you go on a run in the championship, things started to happen for us that year. We weren’t favourites I’d say but we beat the Gaels in the final.”
Reflecting on his career overall, O’Reilly states matter of factly that there were a lot of ‘wasted years’.
“The way I look at is is that there were so many wasted years and maybe we would’ve been more successful with a bit more application or belief. I’m not playing managers or players or the county board, but we should’ve done better.
“You see what a year like 1997 can bring to players and supporters, the lift it gives everyone, so it’s disappointing in a way.
“Jim Reilly was a great player and got to the Ulster final in 1983 and it’s a shame he didn’t get the medal. I played for 10 years and there were a lot of barren years, it’s a pity there wasn’t less of them.”
In terms of friendships made, O’Reilly says he’s particularly acquainted with the Donegal team of that era as they basically played each other on a yearly basis.
“You wouldn’t really be in touch with other players per se. I was friendly with lads when I played in the Railway Cup, but I wouldn’t bump into them much anymore.
“I’d be more familiar with the Donegal lads because we played each other so often. Whereas we wouldn’t have played the likes of Down that often, the odd McKenna Cup game and that was really it. Over the years I was lucky enough to play with a lot of really good players.”
He keeps a close eye on the fortunes of the current Cavan team, especially so as his own son Cormac is part of the panel.
“I’m looking forward to next year and you’re always hoping they’ll do well. You’d like to see them win the Ulster title again and have a bit of success.
“It’s disappointing we’re in Division Four, I don’t think it’s good enough for us, and you’ll never see a team like Tyrone down there.
“ It’s a bit of a downer but listen the only way is up and it’s just one of those things. We need to get up and stay there. There’s 16 teams across Division One and Two and I’d like to see Cavan being in the top 16 teams in the country and staying there.”
This interview began with a nod to O’Reilly’s modest nature, but he does admit that he feels proud to be regarded as one of the finest Cavan footballers of the last 25 years or more.
“I suppose being honest it’s something I am proud of of course, it’d be wrong not to say I’m not.
“I don’t like to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but when you see things saying you’re one of the top players from however many years, it’s nice.
“I heard about an article when Brian McEniff was talking about full-backs and mentioned three standout full-backs in Ulster in his time and he mentioned me and that does make me proud.
“I remember meeting Feargal Logan and a few others a couple of years ago and I was surprised by how much they knew about me. I wouldn’t have thought I’d won enough to have made a name for myself so it’s nice when people respect you.”