Kevin Reilly has had to overcome too many obstacles to allow Meath lie down against Dublin

Having seen off two career-threatening injuries, the Meath full back has a new lease of life

Kevin Reilly: The Meath man has had six intercounty managers since his debut in 2005. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Kevin Reilly: The Meath man has had six intercounty managers since his debut in 2005. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 01:00

The first day Meath tossed Kevin Reilly out the door of the plane, he just about had time to check for a parachute. He was 19 years old and not long out of school. He was so slight that only a few months previously Seán Boylan had doubled over laughing one night at his self-confessed “feeble attempts to do some weights”. He was a boy, little more.

Yet here he was. Meath full-back. Wearing the number three shirt that, save for the occasional filler-in, had been passed from Mick Lyons to Martin O’Connell to Darren Fay over the course of the previous two decades. And wearing it in front of Hill 16 against the Dubs, a high summer crowd of 65,000-plus passing on their welcome. Gulp.

Reilly didn’t blink though. Wouldn’t do it. Not against anyone but especially not against Dublin. He more or less held serve against Conal Keaney, who only took him for a couple of points and a free as Pillar Caffrey’s side ground out a 1-12 to 1-10 win.

“What I remember most is the atmosphere,” he says. “The roar was incredible. We were playing into the Canal End in the first half so I had the Hill behind me, ringing in my ears from the start. But I’d a good tussle with Keaney that day. He hit a few points but I took my fair share of ball.”

In five championship meetings since, Reilly has only beaten Dublin once – yet he’s never seen them as anything more than equals. His heaviest defeat at their hands weighs in at just four points and even then it was after a replay in 2007. He knows full well that common thought has Meath taking a hiding tomorrow but no part of him even imagines that’s possible. There’s an utter Meathness about him that won’t allow it.

Dublin might be young, they might be fast, they might be a comet across the sky. But they don’t know the struggles he’s seen. They can’t know the miles he’s covered just to be back where he started.

They don’t know what it’s like to be told that for the next four months of your life, you will have to either lie on the flat of your back or stand up ramrod straight. That was the instruction that accompanied Reilly home from hospital in Christmas week of 2009. They shaved a slice off one of the discs in his lower back and told him he wasn’t to sit down until April.

“It meant that I had the Christmas dinner standing up that year,” he laughs. “My sister was doing Christmas dinner and I was standing up at the counter while the rest of them sat at the table. So I was a little bit away from them. Maybe I was happy enough!

“But the big issue I had as well was that I had a thesis due for January 15. So I spent the next few weeks kneeling at a computer in DCU trying to type it up. After that, I spent most of the next few months lying down. I had no choice. I had to get it cleared up.”

Yet it isn’t even the worst injury he’s had to find a way around. He did his achilles in training with the International Rules team in 2011 but got through the series and even much of the following spring’s National League through the grace of various injections and endless physio. But coming out with a ball against Carlow in the championship, he pulled up lame and spent the rest of last year hobbling in and out. Never quite gone, never quite there.

Come the end of the season, his patience with it had long evaporated. They did what they could in the Sports Clinic in Santry but eventually he got passed along to Hakan Alfredson, the Swedish doctor generally recognised as the best achilles specialist in his field.

Reilly went for an initial meeting in London last October where he was given a straight choice. Either head to Umea in north-eastern Sweden for an operation in November or hang on until January and get it done in London. He didn’t think twice. Waiting until January would mean a recovery period that lasted well into spring and with a new Meath manager to support, it wasn’t an option. Umea it was, even allowing for a small life event in the meantime.

“He recommended me for surgery and I actually went out to Sweden two weeks after my wedding. It wasn’t the honeymoon, now – a few of the county board officials might have thought it was! No, we got away for our honeymoon at Christmas.

“Believe me, it was tough going. He was based in Umea and I was over there for five days. It was tough. I won’t lie, it was tough enough. When you’re there with your leg wrapped up and you’re on crutches and there’s snow everywhere. You can’t really go anywhere, you can’t really do anything. It was tough but in the end I was delighted to finally put that chapter to bed. Just happy to get the job done.”

He made it back for the third round of the league and hasn’t missed a minute since. After a few spins out the pitch at midfield and at centre back, he has settled in again in front of goal and will likely have Bernard Brogan for company tomorrow. Nobody gives them a prayer. Nobody has cause to.

“I suppose it’s what we know,” he shrugs. “This is the position that we’re in. Growing up, you aspired to be the guys who were contested Leinster finals, contesting All-Irelands on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that’s not the case at the moment.

‘We have potential’
“We’re trying our best to get back up there but over the last couple of years, consistency has been the main issue for us. there’s no doubt about it – we have potential. We’ve contested two All-Ireland semi-finals, we’ve been in quarter-finals, this will be our third Leinster final in four years. So there’s no doubt about it, we have potential and we can be more than a match for any opposition. Consistency is our key issue.”

As he says, Meath haven’t been as far away as it might seem. But the search for that consistency on the pitch has been nobbled time and again by the clanging lack of it outside the wire. Reilly has had six managers since he made that debut in June 2005. Six fresh starts, six clean slates. He would strongly dispute the notion that every one of them was necessary.

“Look, we need a stable foundation. Whether it’s players, management, committee level, whatever. I definitely think that the management team have to be given an opportunity this time and that hasn’t been the case over the last couple of years.

“I have found – and I’m sure any of the players in the squad will tell you the same – that we were really gelling as a squad a couple of times. We were playing great football and we were getting places, you know? Definitely under Colm Coyle and Eamon O’Brien, we would have felt we were going places.

“But then next thing, for whatever reason, the manager changes and we have to start again. Players who had been there a while were just fed up with it. We’d be looking around us going, ‘We’ve been here. We did this before.’

“But just when we needed to kick on, we found ourselves a couple of times going back to the start. Every new manager starts again with the basics, it’s only right that they do. But we went through the basics so many times. And it does take a couple of years for any new manager to get it right.”

Mick O’Dowd has brought them out of Division Three and now into a Leinster final. Whatever happens tomorrow, it won’t be taken down and used in evidence at a later date. Dublin should win, Reilly will happily admit as much. But that doesn’t mean they will.

Don’t look down. Don’t fret. Jump.