When Castlebar Mitchels made it to their first All-Ireland final in 1994, Declan O'Reilly was playing for the club. Two years ago, he sat in the radio commentary box in Croke Park alongside Mike Finnerty and went through his analysis as he watched his old team founder.
Tomorrow, he will be on the sideline as the Mitchels make their third bid for the ultimate club prize.
Seizing the moment was an ongoing theme throughout the winter. O'Reilly and his co-manager Declan Shaw have underlined just how fleeting these days are. After losing to Nemo Rangers on St Patrick's Day 22 years ago, Castlebar all but fell of the map. They relinquished their senior status and had to start again in the Intermediate division of Mayo football.
“The team came to a natural end,” he recalls. “A few players finished up playing and through nobody’s fault a lot of the players who came through just weren’t as ready to commit. Everyone was doing their best. Maybe we didn’t have our best teams in those years. And that is one thing we talked about.
“We got to two All-Irelands: one in 1994 and one in 2014. The choice is stark. If you don’t put a huge concerted effort in, the wheels can come off. But I have to say, the players have driven this. It is the mentality of the players and a younger age profile.”
In the autumn of 2013, most of the attention was fixed on Corofin, the giants of Galway football and St Brigid’s, who had won an exceptional All-Ireland final the previous March. The local arena in Mayo was always a war of attrition: it was hard to predict who would come out.
Mitchels emerged and just kept winning and winning until they were halted by St Vincent's. There were two crucial aspects to that match: the early black card issued to Richie Feeney and the virtuoso performance by St Vincent's' Diarmuid Connolly. O'Reilly hasn't really spoken about that game with the team until they had safely negotiated Crossmaglen in this year's semi-final.
“They had a year after that when they got back to a county final, which was a great achievement. And they were unlucky against Ballintubber. But it showed huge resolve. We took over in December and met up in January. The big thing was to try and win back the county title.
“The players were hugely ambitious. They didn’t want to be seen as a team that had a lucky run. It can be levelled at you if you do it once. . . That is the basis of how the players carry themselves. Now we are back in a final and there is a wrong to be righted, in their view.”
The fortitude they demonstrated against Crossmaglen in Breffni Park on a wild and gripping night proved to everyone that they have the right stuff. The Armagh team are peerless when it comes to manufacturing the right result from fraught, to-the-wire games.
Yet somehow Castlebar found an answer to the questions. They kept their collective composure as the match became more strained and tense.
Club games can, at times, surpass the county equivalent through the pure, undiluted intensity of localised feeling. Crossmaglen and Castlebar produced an occasion like that.
“It was very impressive. The core group is six years on the road at a very serious level. We played the market leaders of tight games. And we had a fair idea that it would be tight at the end. We had to execute our basic skills and just didn’t panic.
“To show that commitment and composure was hugely encouraging. It was that type of night where we went down to our side of the pitch and did a warm down. I think everyone needed to take it down an octave or two. It was a highly charged environment so it was as well that we separated. The Cross’ lads were very gracious and sent us good luck wishes the next day.”
The scoreline reflected the starkness of the night: 0-13 to 0-12. Barry Moran, a hugely honest player who has had mixed fortunes over a long Mayo career, embellished a fine all-round game by stepping up to kick the point which won it for Castlebar. That play contributed to a sense of a jigsaw falling into place for the Mayo champions.
“He has played very well. Barry has struggled with injury sometimes and has a lot of mileage on the club. Myself and Declan sat down and said: look, what we need is for you to be a leader. He is a strong presence in the dressing room and likes to deliver on the pitch. . .”
The anticipated duel between Moran and Ballyboden and Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley is one of the many treats in store in today's football final. O'Reilly has always been a keen student of the club game and had seen plenty of Ballyboden before they became the club's final opponents.
“They are a dogged and determined team because in both those games there were occasions when it looked like they weren’t getting over the line. I get the feeling that they feel their name is on the cup. There is no sense of panic. They keep playing. Dublin are the stand out county for club football now and they are the Dublin champions. They are a serious team.”