GAA Football

Martin O'Reilly has become accustomed to raking up the miles for Donegal

O’Reilly has been putting in the miles between Donegal, Belfast and Dublin this year
Paul McConville

MARTY O’Reilly is used to covering a lot of ground.

An archetypal modern footballer, the number on his back is of minimal significance.

He can be found bursting from the half-back line, foraging in the middle third or creating space and unearthing scoring opportunities closer to the square.

But the ground he’s been covering lately can’t be confined to the dimension of a football field.

When we chat, he’s just completed a training session in Dublin after spending his working day shaping the young minds of the pupils of St Brigid’s Primary School, Castleknock.

It’s the day after he played for Queen’s University in what he describes as a “bad hammering” at the hands of DCU in their Sigerson Cup preliminary round clash at the Dub.

O’Reilly is studying for a masters in education at the Belfast university and has also to travel the breadth of the country to make it home to Ballybofey too.

If he can, he tries to squeeze in the odd game of golf (he’s a tidy nine handicapper), which he says helps unwind and turns out when he can for the hurlers of Sean Mac Cumhaill’s, the reigning Donegal champions.

Clocking up the miles on and off the pitch has become the norm for the Ballybofey man in the last year or so.

It’s his sixth year on the Donegal senior panel and although there is the feeling that he’s been there forever, it’s hard to believe he’s only 23.

By conventional wisdom, he has his best footballing years ahead of him, but he’s already packed so much into his time in the gold and green jersey.

Ulster medals at U21 and senior level and that All-Ireland title in his rookie year, O’Reilly has all of sudden become one of the old hands.

So when Tir Chonaill veterans Eamonn McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Colm McFadden and Christy Toye exited the county stage, O’Reilly knew it was time to assume greater responsibility.

“It probably is time that me and a few of the boys who, for a long time were the younger boys but aren’t the younger boys, maybe need to step up to the plate. Somebody has to try and fill that role because you look at the experience and the leaders that have gone in the last few months.”

O’Reilly’s roving role is not alien to his manager.

Just a stone’s throw from St Brigid’s Primary School is the St Brigid’s GAA club current Donegal manager Rory Gallagher enjoyed a stint with in his own journeyman playing career.

Gallagher’s club career also included spells in Belfast with St Gall’s, Cavan with Crosserlough and his native Fermanagh with his home club Erne Gaels and he also turned out for Fermanagh and Cavan at county level.

Gallagher has been very understanding, O’Reilly reveals and the former U21 star asserts his own commitment to his manager saying: “To be honest, if Rory Gallagher asked me to play corner-back, I’d take it. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but everybody has to work hard. Any time you get a jersey, you’re happy.”

That was the inevitable response to the question of whether he enjoys occupying many different roles for the county team.

It’s unsurprising that any county player would use the ‘I’d play anywhere’ response, but given the rich talent that is coming through in Donegal, a place on the 15 is more coveted than ever, as O’Reilly admits: “The young fellas are full of enthusiasm and nobody can afford to rest on their laurels.” Donegal’s current status in the game means that few can indeed rest on their laurels.

They have reached an Ulster final in every year O’Reilly’s been on the senior panel and have only spent one season outside the top flight in the League in the last five years.

That means consistent competition against high quality opposition, something O’Reilly admits helps them maintain their own high standards.

Last year, they only faced two teams outside of Division One – Fermanagh and Tyrone – the latter pipping them to an Ulster title in a sixth consecutive final appearance.

Before that they had squeezed into a NFL semi-final and been stretched to the limit over two games by Monaghan in an Ulster semi-final.

That put them on a Championship collision course with the allconquering Dublin and O’Reilly knows the margins are again likely to be fine in 2017.

“One, two minutes in an Ulster final... if you hold on, you’re Ulster champions and the route’s very different then and it could have been a very different year. But obviously that’s not the case,” he said.

“But any year you get to an Ulster final... well I suppose it’s become the way that we expect that in Donegal, that we need to try and get to Ulster finals and further.

“We got past Monaghan, just about, we always have tough battles with them. It took us two games to get past them. They’re a brilliant side.

“Obviously with Tyrone, any time we play Tyrone it’s going to be a battle as well. It’s just a pity we couldn’t hold on, that’s the disappointing thing”

The ultimate battle for most county players is a Dublin side who went through the whole of 2016 without tasting defeat.

O’Reilly is magnanimous enough That’s what we would find, you have to believe.

You’re as well staying at home if you don’t think you can beat any team you go out to play on any given day Marty O’Reilly to give them their dues and as a county player making huge sacrifices, admires their work-rate.

“Dublin are absolutely fantastic, credit where credit’s due. I suppose a lot of people think they’re lucky and a lot of things come their way, but I would know from working in Dublin how hard them boys work as well. It’s the same with the Mayo boys. You don’t get nothing you don’t deserve. But they’ve set the standard and it’s up to the rest of us to work hard, and work twice as hard I suppose, to get to that level,” he said.

Jim Gavin’s men visit Ballybofey at the end of February in the third round of Division One fixtures and, having been part of the panel which sprung a surprise on the Dubs in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, O’Reilly knows they are not invincible.

“You need to be well planned, you need to be well prepared and I suppose a lot of things have to go your way if you want to beat them,” he said.

“At the end of the day, they are the team to beat but you can’t go in with a defeatist attitude, you have to go in believing you can beat them because if you don’t believe you can beat them, you’re facing an uphill battle before you even begin the game

“That’s what we would find, you have to believe.

“You’re as well staying at home if you don’t think you can beat any team you go out to play on any given day.”

Staying put doesn’t seem to be an option for O’Reilly at the minute.

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