PETER Reilly’s footballing brain has expanded and developed ever since he was no age at all – and it continues to grow to this day.
The 44-year-old has had a serious impact on Cavan. As a player he captained the Breffni county at minor, u-21 and senior level and played key roles in provincial success in the latter of those two age grades.
After hanging up his boots, he coached and managed them to three Ulster U-21 titles, while clubs like Arva have also enjoyed success under his tutelage. The youngsters of Knockbride are currently experiencing his coaching expertise.
He has all the hallmarks of a future Cavan manager – though it’s an ambition that he pours cold water on later in this interview.
What is evident is that his on-field intelligence translated to the sideline. And crucially, he was always listening to the good men around him
There are some obvious examples. Ray Cullivan, who named him as Cavan minor captain in 1993. Terry Hyland, who managed him at Knockbride early in his career with the pair teaming up again during the county’s golden run at u-21 level. Peter Donnelly, the man who can do the work of two men, and then there is the late, great Joe McCarthy. Someone who had a huge impact on Reilly.
The education started as a youngster in Knockbride though. Three brothers all close in age kicking about in the yard, falling out and making up. And playing, always playing.
Peter, the oldest, would enjoy great success in blue. Michael, another young star, would surely have played a lot more for his county if it weren’t for injury issues. And then there was Larry, the younger of the three who earned cult status amongst GAA fans.
“There was a lot of playing ball growing up,” Peter Reilly said.
“Back then there wasn’t a lot else going on, now you have swimming, you have basketball, you have soccer, you have music, you have dancing. All these others things.
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was football and not much else. There was a lot of ball kicked for a long time and I suppose it really helped us when we went on to play.
“We were so close in age that it was just what we did. It was all part of the learning experience – it was probably better than any training experience you ever got.
“There was a bit of work, a bit of farming and then there was the ball.”
It was Cullivan who gave Reilly his first prominent role in Cavan colours as he appointed him minor team captain for the 1993 season.
The Ulster Championship started perfectly for the skipper as he goaled after just two minutes in the win against Monaghan in Castleblayney.
In the semi-final with 54 minutes on the clock and Cavan trailing Derry by two points, Barry Rudden played Reilly in and his shot looked set to hit the net before rebounding off the upright. Buoyed by the let off, Derry finished strongly to win by six points and a harsh lesson was banked in Reilly’s mind. It would be the first of many.
“Ray Cullivan was the minor manager. He was a teacher at St Pat’s and he was a very good coach, an excellent coach. He was ahead of his time and brought a lot of good stuff to it.
“Derry beat us in an Ulster semi-final at Casement. At that age you can play well one day, the next day you don’t. It’s a very thin line at that age.
“Sixty minutes in a knock-out competition, it’s a harsh enough way to lose.
“We didn’t play well against Derry to be brutally honest. We could have got by; I hit the post with a fisted shot. It would have brought us back into the game but it didn’t go in.”
The player had little time to lick his wounds though. The very next season he was starting for the senior team in their Ulster Championship defeat to Monaghan.
Although he would acquit himself fairly well on his senior inter-county debut, he was substituted for a man who would have a massive impact on him further down the line, Joe McCarthy.
He may have been fresh blood, but it was a team stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity. Losing championship games had become a habit that they couldn’t kick.
The Oriel county’s 3-10 to 1-12 win in Breffni Park was the seventh successive year that Cavan had failed to get past the first round. For a county that had a 24-title lead when it came to the Anglo Celt roll of honour at that time, it simply wasn’t good enough.
It was a bad day all around for the Reilly household with Michael starting for the minors and Larry amongst the substitutes as they too lost out to their bitter rivals.
“Early in ’94 I went into the u-21 panel and played that,” Reilly continued.
“Armagh beat us in the first round and then PJ (Carroll) asked me into the senior panel and I ended up playing against Monaghan when they beat us in the first round in Breffni.
“I didn’t play any league that year, it was actually over when I came into the panel. Monaghan beat the minors too that day.
“It was tough times for Cavan but it’s that long ago that you forget about it too. All three teams were beaten in the first round that year, the seniors, the u-21s and the minors.
“Then at the end of ’94 Martin McHugh came in.”
The Donegal man’s arrival coincided with what would be a thrilling few years for Cavan football, culminating in the 1997 Ulster title.
In July of 1993, Carroll and his management team had won a vote of confidence 36-27 to carry on for two more seasons.
However, the loss to Monaghan the following year spelt the end of his time in charge and he sent a resignation letter to the county board a few weeks later.
The rumour mill went into overdrive with Jack O’Shea, Colm O’Rourke, Sean McCague and Niall Rennicks all mentioned in dispatches.
As it was, on August 1, 1994, McHugh was handed a three-year term after a unanimous ratification by the county board. It would prove to be an inspired choice, especially as the Tir Chonaill star also took charge of the Cavan u-21s.
By the end of 1996, Reilly would have played in three Ulster finals with mixed success.
At senior level, the winless run finally came to a conclusion and a 19-year-old Reilly added to his ever-growing reputation with two brilliantly taken goals in the 2-11 to 0-8 win over Antrim.
London Bus Syndrome then kicked in. Having endured seven championship years without a win, two arrived in the space of three weeks with Monaghan, their nemesis in the previous years, beaten by two points in the semi-final.
That secured a first Ulster final appearance since 1983 and although a Peter Canavan-inspired Tyrone proved too big of a hurdle in the final, the die had been cast.
“1995 to ’97 was probably the best time we had,” Reilly said.
“That ’95 final, Cavan hadn’t played in an Ulster final since ’83 and there were an awful lot of people who hadn’t seen Cavan play in an Ulster final.
“The weather that summer was brilliant. It was a really hot summer, and the final was huge for Cavan people. Great aul times.
“There could have been over 30,000 at that Monaghan game in Clones in the semi-final. A real hot day. That was the game I probably remember more than any that season.
“I don’t remember Cavan playing in Clones and winning before that game. That was a great win for us.
“Tyrone beat us in the final, they were very unlucky not to go on and win the All-Ireland.
“We competed with them well enough but they got a couple of goals late on. Mattie McGleenan got a punched goal near the end. They were the better team and that was it.”
It was a second provincial final loss for Reilly in a matter of months.
In April Reilly took up a new role in midfield and caused Donegal all sorts of problems in the first half of the u-21 final at Brewster Park. Despite Dermot McCabe’s goal helping them to a 1-4 to 0-1 lead early on, the free-taking of Donal Buggy, a man with many Breffni links, secured a replay for the Tir Chonaill men.
Two weeks later Donegal were rampant in a 3-11 to 1-11 win back in Enniskillen. Cavan were dealt a blow with Raymond Cunningham’s late withdrawal following an eligibility query by the Meath County Board and Reilly, who played a lot of the game at full-forward, was one of the few Cavan players to show up.
Cavan and Reilly would earn redemption 13 months later. Cunningham, meanwhile, would have to wait a bit longer for his own Ulster final moment – but it would be worth the wait.
In 1996 the u-21 side retained many of the players who had come so close to winning Ulster the year before.
Reilly had replaced Kevin Brennan as captain and in an unexpected switch, McHugh had decided that the player would now be the on-field general at centre half-back.
Antrim were swatted aside, before Reilly stepped up to the plate with a massive performance to nudge out Armagh in Cootehill on the first day the three Reilly brothers had started a Cavan championship game together.
Larry, a late addition to the side for the Armagh game, held his place for the final against Derry two months later.
The Oakleaf county had given this Cavan group plenty of problems coming through the ranks, but despite being able to call on the likes of Johnny McBride, Ronan Rocks, Enda Muldoon and Sean Marty Lockhart, Cavan eased to a 1-11 to 1-5 win. The then Ulster Council President John Vesey handed the trophy to Reilly and he held it aloft in the Gerry Arthurs Stand.
“Winning becomes a bit of habit. It’s all about confidence,” said Reilly. “If you’re confident in your own game then you start to have success.
“Sometimes you might think you’re better than you are but it helps you get over games.
“Whatever Martin saw in me, he just put me into centre half-back. He probably saw that you could play a lot of ball at number six.
“We had a good run in ’96. We had an easy win against Antrim and then a very tough battle against Armagh. That was a real tight game on a Saturday afternoon in Cootehill.
“Then it was the Ulster final and the same Derry side that had beaten us three years earlier in the minors.
“They didn’t turn up, we won the game handy and should have won the game by a lot more.
“It was a good day. It was sort of anti-climax to win the game the way we did too. We won it shocking handy.”
Meath were up next for a two-game saga that was littered with controversy.
There had been arguments over the venue as Cavan didn’t want to toss a coin as Breffni Park was being redeveloped.
Dr Hyde Park was eventually chosen but the tension bubbled over into a free-for-all in the first half.
Cavan fans made up the majority of the 5,000 attendance in Roscommon, and they left the happier as Roy Brennan earned a replay with a converted free two minutes into additional time.
The Royal county weren’t happy to see the replay fixed back in Roscommon for August 25. The likes of Trevor Giles and Darren Fay were some of the seven players who were due to be part of the squad to face Tyrone in the All-Ireland Senior semi-final on August 18.
Another battle followed, but Cavan claimed a famous win to set up an All-Ireland final date with Kerry in Thurles.
The build-up should have been one of excitement, but Reilly’s was soured by a car accident along with Cavan senior player Patrick Shiels. The former escaped with minor injuries although Shiels required hospital treatment for a hip issue.
Reilly was still able to take his spot in the starting side and when Mickey Graham put Cavan one ahead with just four minutes remaining, a first All-Ireland title at this level looked increasingly likely.
However, Kerry finished strongly to win by four points and the Breffni players were instead consoled by the 1000 supporters who had turned up at Market Square in Cavan to welcome them home.
“It was a game that could have been won,” said Reilly. “You can never change it.
“Coming into injury time we were level and Kerry reeled off four quick points. It was a game they were ahead, we were ahead, back and forth, and then they just got the finish.”
As Cavan were preparing for the u-21 game, McHugh’s future with the senior team was looking shaky.
Two months earlier, after the Ulster semi-final loss to Down, he hinted that the travelling from Kilcar was becoming an issue.
“I have been down in Cavan five times a week,” he told the Anglo Celt. “You’re talking in terms of seven hours, a 200-mile round trip.”
Then in the week before the All-Ireland U-21 final with Kerry, he informed the county board that he required a leave of absence to recharge, with selector Donal Donahoe stepping into the breach as interim manager.
That sabbatical ended in the first week of January and over the coming months Cavan would go on a journey that would result in their only Anglo Celt success of the last 51 years.
It could have been so different had Fermanagh held out in the quarter-final.
“Last gasp Cavan live to fight once again,” read the Irish Independent headline and Anthony Forde was the hero as he kicked a leveler six minutes into additional time.
Cavan won the replay 0-14 to 0-11 on a day when sport seemed rather less important following the death of Paul McGirr after an accidental collision in the Tyrone and Armagh minor game that was taking place in Omagh on the same afternoon.
Reilly bristled when asked were the team a bit too confident going into the first Fermanagh game.
“Fermanagh was a right team too now,” he said. “They had some really good footballers.
“Raymond Gallagher was playing corner-forward and he was one of the best forwards in Ulster at that time. He had the sweetest left foot and was very fast over short spaces. Very hard to mark.
“We were lucky and even the second day we just got over the line.
“That’s the way it was, it’s a bit different now. At that time the Ulster Championship had a lot of tight games and it’s only in the last 10 years that there have been two or three standout teams. It was a lot closer back then.”
A 1-2 tally from Reilly helped Cavan past Donegal in the semi-final before a thrilling one-point final win over Derry.
A day remembered well by both sets of fans, but not as fondly by those in the Oakleaf county.
For those wearing blue, a first Ulster title since 1969. For those in red, Ray Cunningham’s point is still something that gnaws away.
Replays showed that the ball had drifted wide, but given that he had an Ulster U-21 final appearance ripped away from him in 1995, few would begrudge him a bit of fortune.
“It was a hell of a day, the Ulster Championship hadn’t been won since 1969,” Reilly said. “It was a massive lift for the county and magical times to be playing in the Cavan team.
“It’s a football-mad county and there was so much frustration because we had to wait so long and there is so much frustration that we have been waiting so long since.”
Reilly said that he missed the whole rigmarole of Cunnginham’s disputed point and didn’t realise it was an issue until later that night.
“It was just what I saw on the telly,” he said. “I have no recollection of it from the game itself. I didn’t realise it until maybe that night and someone said that it was wide.
“I think Paul O’Dowd pulled off a hell of a save near the end from no. 10, (Gary) McGill.”
The blue wave was heading south for an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry. Reilly’s first and only match at Croke Park. Over 60,000 fans back where Cavan belonged.
The Kingdom again, the side who had broken their hearts in an All-Ireland U-21 final 11 months previously.
Peter Reilly, Dermot McCabe, Terry Farrelly, Jason Reilly, Larry Reilly and Mickey Graham featured for Cavan in both games.
For Kerry, Morgan O’Shea, Darragh Ó Sé, William Kirby, Denis O’Dwyer, Liam Hassett, Dara Ó Cinnéide, Brian Clarke and Mike Frank Russell doubled up.
It was Russell who provided the coup de grâce with a 1-1 tally from the bench to send Kerry on their way to All-Ireland number 31 with Mayo dismissed in the final.
For Reilly it was another one of those valuable learning experiences with the player remarking afterwards that it was so loud that he couldn’t hear his teammates 10 yards away in the 1-17 to 1-10 loss.
“My first and only time playing in Croke Park, unfortunately,” said the player. “I never got back.
“It was a massive noise. There were 60,000 people at it and a lot of Cavan people turned up. Cavan hadn’t been in a championship match at Croke Park since ’69.
“I actually saw the first half of that game recently, what we missed in the first half of that game would have won two games.
“They got a goal disallowed just before half-time that was probably an unfair call but we missed a lot. I missed a goal, I missed a free, Ronan (Carolan) missed a couple of frees.
“We were a point up at the break and probably should have been five or six points up but I’ve never watched the second half.
“Again I remember we had chances in the second half but that’s it, if you don’t take your chances against top teams like Kerry then they will make you pay.
“That’s the same story today, probably even more so. We didn’t and that was the end of the road for us that year.”
A small consolation arrived for Reilly in the form of an Allstar nomination alongside teammates Paul O’Dowd, Ronan Carolan, Damien O’Reilly, Dermot McCabe and Gerry Sheridan. The exclusion of half-back Brendan Morris on the shortlist caused a bit of head-scratching in the Breffni county, but there was hope that two or three would get the nod.
In the end only McCabe made the final 15 with Kildare, who had a three-game saga with Meath, earning three despite not even making the Leinster final. The Royals also picked up two spots despite not coming out of their province.
It was also the first year of the Young Footballer of the Year award with Mike Frank Russell receiving that honour. Given his performances at such a tender age, Reilly’s name would likely have cropped up when the selection panel was discussing contenders.
“I don’t have any real recollection to say if there was or wasn’t a bit of fuss about that,” Reilly said of their one Allstar return.
“Meath and Kildare had played a number of games that year, replay after replay. They both got a couple and neither of them won a Leinster Championship.
“It wouldn’t happen now and we probably should have gotten more considering what happened.
“I don’t know if I was or not (a contender for Young Player of the Year). I probably didn’t play that well in the Kerry game, I was only middling in the Ulster final.
“We won the Ulster Championship, that was the main thing. The disappointment was, and still is, that it was a great chance to win an All-Ireland. We never had that back.”
Cavan and Kerry would meet just two months later in the National League but in the unusual setting of Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, New York.
The match was to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1947 All-Ireland final at the Polo Grounds between the two counties.
“The Breffni men are ready to stop the green and gold rush,” the marketing slogan read.
Over 8,000 turned up to see if they could and although a strong second-half performance gave Kerry a 1-12 to 0-8 win – Maurice Fitzgerald with their goal from the penalty spot – it felt as though Cavan had finally muscled back in amongst the big boys. The feeling would not last long.
“That match was going to happen irrespective of what came about, but it just happened that Cavan won Ulster and Kerry won Munster and the All-Ireland,” Reilly continued.
“We didn’t play awful well and it actually started into a downward spiral.
“The whole leagues were restructured and we actually played Tyrone in April ’97 to stay in Division One at Clones, we had a good win (2-9 to 0-8).
“We stayed in Division One but they redrew the whole league, so it meant the next season we were fired into a group with Kerry, Dublin, we had Tyrone, we had Monaghan. It was a shocking group.
“The results of that group put us into a lower group the next year after.”
The Cavan cause wasn’t helped by an unseemly affair that gained national attention in January 1999.
Team manager Liam Austin called a press conference at Cabra Castle and announced his resignation alongside his management team of Hugo Clerkin, Martin Lynch, Mickey Reilly and Barry Tierney.
The situation reared its head after a series of meetings between players and management where Clerkin’s training methods were questioned.
After a few weeks of claims, counterclaims and accusations between Austin, the players and factions of the county board, Val Andrews came in to take charge.
Reilly said that a cruciate injury meant that he wasn’t at the heart of developments, and looking back he wasn’t too disappointed about that.
“I wasn’t about that time, I did the cruciate and I was gone,” he said. “I did it against Dublin in late 1997 in Parnell Park.
“I had to call a halt in the spring of ’98 so I was still out when it all kicked off.
“I was on the fringes but I wasn’t involved at all, I was just focused on trying to get back playing.”
There was a revival in 2001 under Andrews as Cavan made it back to the Ulster final but for the second time in Reilly’s career, Tyrone proved their kryptonite on provincial decider day.
The Red Hands were red-hot favourites but found themselves 1-8 to 1-5 behind at the break before blunting the Cavan attack in the second half to earn a two-point success.
“Like a lot of games I’ve mentioned, it’s one that we could have won,” said Reilly, who was captain that day.
“For whatever reason, around that time we always seemed to draw an Ulster team in the Qualifiers.
“We got Derry in the fourth round and that was the last team that you wanted to meet after Tyrone. They beat us in Clones and turned around and beat Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final.”
And that was that. Reilly would never play in another Ulster final prior to his retirement.
There were moments though with the 2004 Ulster semi-final against Armagh still grinding away at some Cavan fans.
The Orchard county were big favourites, but Pearse McKenna was lined within a minute with Francie Bellew hitting the deck in dramatic circumstances.
With 14 men for 69 minutes Cavan lost by two points and few in Clones that day would argue that with 15 they almost certainly would have won.
“Some lads thought he (Bellew) had made an awful lot of very little,” Reilly said. “There was nothing really in it, Pearse got a red card anyway.
“I started that day, I wasn’t long back from my second cruciate and I didn’t last that long.
“It was a real hot day and Eamonn Coleman took me off after 20 or 25 minutes.
“It was another one of these nearly games. We were competing with these teams but we just weren’t getting over the line.
“The 2001 Ulster final, competing but we don’t get over the line. A good Limerick team got us in 2002 in a replay, they could have beaten Kerry that year in Munster. Armagh in 2004. We were always pushing them.
“We never seemed to get much of a run in the Qualifiers. We did get a bit of a run in ’05, we beat Donegal in Breffni and then we beat Meath in Clones. Mayo beat us then in round four.
“That was essentially the end of me.”
Martin McElkennon did convince Reilly to return for the 2006 season but his Cavan career fizzled out.
“I played against Down in 2006 in Casement when we lost and Kildare in the Qualifiers was the end of it.
“I had done two cruciates and I played maybe seven games in 10 weeks in ’05 and Jaysus my body was wrecked after it. I said I’m not fit for it anymore.”
While his Cavan playing days may have come to an end, his association with his county certainly didn’t.
Reilly quickly moved into management and his ability was obvious.
“I played in with the club until 2010 and then I went to Cuchullain’s, the club up beside me here.
“Then I was with Terry Hyland and the u-21s for one year and then I took over in 2013, ’14 and ’15.”
There, Reilly continued Hyland’s good work with two Ulster titles stretching Cavan’s provincial winning streak to four.
“They were great years,” he said. “They got to the Ulster u-21 final in 2010 and Donegal beat them. It was a very good Donegal team, Michael Murphy was the star of the show at that time.
“I wasn’t involved in 2011 and then in 2012 I went in as a selector. Terry ended up being senior manager in 2013 and a few of us stayed on for the next three seasons.
“The structure in place at that time meant that the u-21s stayed with the u-21s and they only went to the seniors after it.
“There was a lot of emphasis put on training with the u-21s and I thought it was a good policy. You have to learn with your own age-group first.
“The way it’s u-20s now, I think it’s even more difficult for lads to go to senior. They are not developed enough.
“For us at that time, boys had seen the success and wanted to play. We would have trial matches before Christmas for the following year and you’d have any amount of players coming wanting to get on it.
“They were really committed to it, and did exactly what we asked.
“We had Peter Donnelly with us for two years and Joe McCarthy, God rest him, was an absolute genius when it came to football.”
Ulster glories were celebrated – All-Ireland semi-finals would only bring heartbreak though.
In 2013, the side fought back brilliantly to draw level with Cork in additional time before the Rebels notched a winning free at the death.
The 2014 All-Ireland semi-final loss to a star-studded Dublin team would be much tougher to stomach.
“Sad stories again. Cork beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final by a point but Monaghan could have beaten us in the very first round in Breffni Park,” Reilly said.
“They had a chance to go two up with time nearly up, kicked a wide and we managed to get up the field to level it and won in extra-time.”
The following year a huge Cavan crowd to Portlaoise to see their side take on a Dublin team featuring Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello, Brian Fenton and John Small amongst others. Ciaran Kilkenny missed out through injury.
Some have already achieved legendary status since but Cavan fans were enraged at the final whistle following referee Derek O’Mahoney’s display.
A number of fans, players and Reilly himself approached the official as he walked off the pitch with stewards and a Guard having to surround him as he exited the field.
Time has not been a healer for Reilly.
“We felt hard done by that day,” he said. “Nothing has changed since that.”
“He had it in his head that he refereed it as best as he could and he went out to referee it as best he could, but in my mind we got a couple of very harsh decisions in the last 10 minutes.
“Joe Dillon got a black card with 15 minutes to go for fouling on his own end-line. Their corner-forward (Conor McHugh) tripped a fella right in front of us and he gave him a yellow card. The exact same thing. Joe was causing their full-back all sorts of bother.
“I have no doubt the referee saw the frees as he saw it. So we’ll not change it now.”
Reilly was linked with the Cavan job in April 2012 after Val Andrews stood down with Hyland instead taking charge.
Understandably, the links were much firmer when Hyland stepped down in 2016 and when Mattie McGleenan called time in 2018. Was it just paper talk or was he genuinely interested?
“Half-heartedly,” Reilly responded.
“The core of the team I had at u-21s, Peter Donnelly and Joe McCarthy, Ronan Carolan – Peter wasn’t available to me, Joe, God rest him, passed away in 2016.
“To try and put a team together at that level, you want to have people that understand you and you understand them.
“I did try but it’s difficult to put a team together when looking left, right and centre. Did I really go at it? I talked to a few people but ultimately no.
“In my mind Peter Donnelly is one of the best coaches about, he is very well educated in all things Gaelic but he also professionally qualified in strength and conditioning.
“He conditions players to play the game to a level that I don’t think most other coaches can. He was doing two jobs that all counties need.
“Joe McCarthy, as I said already, was an absolute genius. The level of detail he went into, what we needed to do, how we needed to do it, was amazing.”
Mickey Graham is in the role now and Reilly is confident that his former teammate can end the long wait for another Ulster title – a wait that now stretches to 23 years.
When Graham does eventually depart, Reilly’s name will no doubt be thrown into the mix once more, but his presence in the Cavan dug-out at any stage is an unlikely occurrence, according to the man himself.
“No,” was the response when asked was it an ambition to manage Cavan in the future.
“I have no ambition for it unless something strange happens in my life.
“I’m back coaching underage at the club, with the kids.
“We did a lot of work at the clubrooms recently, developing those.
“I’m coaching underage teams in Knockbride and I’m enjoying that.
“At senior inter-county level you need a lot of people, as well as yourself, doing very little other than that job.
“It’s serious the time involved and for that reason so no, it wouldn’t be an ambition.”
So Reilly is back at the club. Back where he and his brothers learned the ropes and developed into inter-county footballers.
Back where he won a Cavan Junior title in 1996 and an Intermediate title in 2000. Back where he hopes to make a difference having done so with Cavan for 20-plus years. That brain keeps on ticking over.