By Stephen Grealis
It’s been a whirlwind year for Kilmeena manager John Reilly.
This time twelve months ago he was preparing his team for their second consecutive Mayo junior championship final, now they are looking to become the first team since Breaffy in 2003 and ’04 to go back-to-back at junior and intermediate level.
It’s something he and his team are brimming with excitement about.
Reilly is a man who likes to keep his feet firmly on the ground, a true clubman in every sense of the word, always striving towards the future.
“It’s all about the development of the players, the silverware that comes with it is the cherry on top, a cherry we want as well,” he remarks.
The prospect of bringing a rural club like Kilmeena to within 60 minutes of top-tier football in Mayo is a tantilising one.
“To play senior football and to bring Kilmeena to the senior championship, that’s truly massive, it’d be the culmination of an awful lot of hard work, by all the coaches throughout the club, not just now but in years gone by, and also by the hard work put in by this group of players over the last couple of seasons,” states Reilly.
You can look back through the annals and see that Kilmeena were in the senior final over 100 years ago against Ballina Stephenites, but it’s a different era now.
“At the end of it all, we just have to go out and make sure it happens on Saturday, and for me personally it’d be a dream come true,” the manager admits.
Such is the beauty and openness of the Mayo intermediate championship, anyone who could correctly predict the finalists before a ball is thrown in on any given year would be a very rich man.
In many ways it’s been a crazy year for John Reilly and his side, going from county, provincial and All-Ireland junior champions to being catapulted into the county intermediate final, but it’s not a fantasy and he believes it was always a possibility, given the bounce that their previous success brought.
“We always planned that it could happen, that our momentum could be a factor in our favour, but it’s down to the effort that the lads have been and are putting in. But it’s a wonderful place to be nonetheless.
“The reality is that we haven’t done anything yet, the fact that we have young lads that have just come into the team this year who didn’t have that success last year, their hunger and desire has been huge because they want their own success, and it’s driving us on even further as a unit.
“The feeling throughout the camp is that we want to play senior football and that’s the aim ultimately.”
The development of those younger players who played in a county minor A championship final earlier this year and their emergence into the first team has been a huge benefit to an already stellar squad, and John Reilly is quick to sing their praises.
“They pushed us on last year to the All-Ireland and came in this year with more enthusiasm to go even further again.
“Jack Mulchrone kicked a big point the last day, Colin Hastings has improved massively this season, Liam Moore has been great too, bearing in mind he just turned 18 a few weeks ago.
“It’s great to see that the conveyor belt is working well because for a club like us it’s badly needed.
“It’s crazy to think that at one point this season Darragh Keaveney was the oldest outfield player at 26, so there’s a wonderful blend there through the squad.”
Losing Niall Feehan to emigration was a major blow to Kilmeena as were injuries to Conor Madden and their captain Sean Ryder during crucial parts of the championship, thus having these young players and a little bit of depth has been paramount to Kilmeena reaching the decider.
“There’s been talk of changing age grades and not allowing players at 18 to play with us, but we need them and wouldn’t be where we are this season without them,” the manager stresses.
Kilmeena’s opponents next Saturday were narrowly on the wrong side of the result in last year’s final.
But given how Kilmeena bounced back immediately after losing the 2020 junior final, Reilly knows a wounded animal is a dangerous one.
“People say sometimes it takes losing a final to win one, we’ve lost enough and won enough in our time to know what it’s all about.
“Ballyhaunis will be ready, they will be committed and they are going to be hurting from last year as well.
“They may feel they left it behind them but they haven’t shown it one bit this year. They are an absolute quality team.
“Some say they’ve come quietly this year but there is an amazing blend of pace, experience and youth there. Make no mistake, it’s going to be a very tough task trying to take them down.”