Speaking to Brendan Crossan ahead of their Electric Ireland Ulster MFC semi-final with Derry today, Breffni manager Peter Reilly talks coaching, his playing days with Cavan and those who left an impression on him…
Brendan Crossan: Do you miss playing?
Peter Reilly: No, I’m finished playing a long time now. I’m closer to 50 than 40. I finished club football in 2010.
BC: When did you get involved in coaching?
PR: I took over a club team Cuchullainn’s and then I ended up with Cavan U21s for a few years, I was in Carrickmacross for two years and Arvagh for a couple of years, and then I came back to my own club to coach underage kids.
BC: What’s the best thing about coaching?
PR: Seeing on the pitch what you’re telling players to do and seeing teams progressing.
BC: What was your most satisfying period in coaching?
PR: It’s amazing how it goes from one sphere to another. Obviously the first time I was over the Cavan U21s and we beat Monaghan after extra-time was a great feeling and winning the Ulster U21s that year and the year after [2013 and 2014].
But one of the most enjoyable times I had was with my club. We won an U17 Division Three championship a number of years ago. We maxed out the potential that was in the players in a competition that, in my opinion, had two better teams in it, but we won the championship.
That was probably as good as winning the U21s with Cavan. We had very small numbers, we scraped a team together, there were lads aged 14 playing at the time. One of the lads on the team had four more years to play. We won a semi-final against the head and we won a final against the head.
BC: What lessons did you take away from that U17 club success?
PR: There were probably a number of players that really put themselves out. Management and coaching is all about directing players and basic skills.
At underage level you’re not going to get extremely technical. It’s the basics, basics, basics, practice, be as fit as you can. It probably does get more technical as you go up through the grades.
BC: What has been the trajectory of those U17 players?
PR: Some did well and some haven’t played since. But there’s one particular fella – Fergal Smith – who wouldn’t have played much underage county football and he worked extremely hard and got better and better, and he played against Tyrone in the Ulster U20 final this year.
He absolutely put all he could into improving himself. That wasn’t anything to do with coaching, he did it himself. He went from not being a county footballer to being a county footballer. That’s an example of what can be done if you put your effort into it.
BC: Can you coach desire? Can you draw something out of a young player?
PR: It’s difficult. There has to be something inside somebody before you start. If there’s no flame, it’s very hard to put one in somebody. That could be wrong, that could be a downside of my own ability as a coach. But there are different ways of levering lads and coaching them.
BC: What was the highlight of your playing career?
PR: Winning an Ulster Championship with Cavan in ’97. Unfortunately, we just never kicked on after that. Our underage players just weren’t coming through either.
BC: In your younger days, who were big influences on your career?
PR: Gerry Sheanon was a very good coach and he’s with me now at the minors. Ray Cullivan was one too. Ray was an excellent coach, way ahead of his time. He had set-plays and kick-out strategies. I would win a heap of ball by just emptying spaces at wing-forward.
Martin McHugh had a big influence on me too as I was still young when he took over the Cavan seniors. At that level it is very small percentages that move the thing forward.
To move from 85 per cent to 95 in capacity isn’t that difficult if you have someone directing you the correct way. Martin was very detailed, understood the game, fitness, tactical awareness, even psychology-wise, he was cute how he got into players’ heads without you even knowing it, just saying little things. He was always a deep thinker about the game.
BC: You’ve coached in an era with so much tactical upheaval and rule changes [2010 to the present]. What parts of it have you enjoyed and others you haven’t?
PR: When I was over the Cavan U21s it was very, very defensive football. The Jim McGuinness style had bedded in and my own thought processes at the time was, the only way you could beat it was match it.
Dublin have changed it since but at that time it wasn’t very pretty and that’s the reality. A lot of our U21s won Ulsters that way because if you went any other way you got picked off. The whole Donegal-Jim McGuinness era changed it drastically. The best time for football, for me, was the 90s.
When you look back, there were a lot of mistakes but there was some tremendous football played. And the ‘Noughties’ as well… But the game has evolved now and is not as defensive.
BC: During that defensive period of football, did players become more educated about the game or did it stunt their growth?
PR: In some counties it stunted it because it became too regimental. I could be blamed for that as much as anybody else because I practised the same system at U21 level, but it was a way of winning.
But at the top table you saw what Dublin and Mayo did after that after the 2014 All-Ireland; they were tremendous games and players weren’t restricted. Teams tried to play to their absolute strengths in their locker. The lifespan of some teams is very short and it’s very much a results-driven environment. If you’re not winning in two or three years you’re out the gate.
BC: Is your Cavan minor team more expansive?
PR: It is. We have a reasonable set of forwards and they go at it.
BC: What is your primary role: to create a successful team or seeing five or six of your minors playing senior football in a few years’ time?
PR: I think it’s the latter. For that to happen, you need to win too. Success brings that level of commitment. If it was a choice of winning a championship and seeing lads going on to win senior championships, I’d be taking the second one.
BC: Your son Lorcan plays for the Cavan minors. What’s that like?
PR: Fine. I have him at the club too. He’s like any other player; he probably gets a tongue-lashing quicker than any other player! He’s way better than I was. I think he got all his football ability from his mother!