Reilly stands defiant in face of Dubs juggernaut
Captain insists Royals will fight to the end against Leinster favourites
WHEN a teenage Kevin Reilly burst on the scene he was the heir to Meath's most iconic jersey.
The Navan O'Mahonys man was to inherit the No 3 position, a difficult one to fill at senior football at that age, but in Meath, it holds a special significance.
What made his introduction harder was that the county's most recent All-Ireland-winning full-back, Darren Fay, was still in the side. Playing with heroes brings its own difficulties.
"I would have grown up watching Darren and idolised him," Reilly recalls. "He was kind of the player I aspired to be. He had some great values and characteristics as well. Mick Lyons before him too, they are two great stalwarts of Meath football.
"Of course there are expectations but you go out and do your best. I am my own person. I have to go out and play my own game. I was comfortable enough."
A symbol of defiance, Meath full-back lineage has run through their All-Ireland-winning teams. In Sunday's Leinster final with white-hot Dublin, Reilly will likely be one of the busiest men on the pitch.
Injuries have blighted his career but his importance to Meath has never dimmed. He was forced off with an Achillies injury after 25 minutes in last year's Leinster final and could only look on as Dublin plundered two decisive goals in as many minutes just before the break.
An operation before Christmas in Sweden ruled him out of the early part of the league, but one of Mick O'Dowd's first acts was to name Reilly as his captain.
As he recuperated, Meath wavered. Heavy defeats to Cavan and Monaghan had them in a nosedive for the basement division.
As Reilly and others returned to fitness, Meath's fortunes turned. The Royals' only loss since early March came in the Division 3 final against Ulster finalists Monaghan when the county, satisfied to have gained promotion, ran championship games in the build-up.
Against Wicklow in Aughrim in the Leinster quarter-final, when the home side were pushing hard for a goal late on, it was Reilly who repeatedly emerged with possession, making one particularly telling fetch late on to relieve the pressure on his relatively inexperienced team.
In the semi-final against Wexford, their second-half performance hinted at the improvement they can make.
However, nothing will have prepared them for Sunday in what the bookies are expecting to be the most one-sided encounter between Dublin and the Royals in history. Reilly vows that his side won't throw in the towel regardless of circumstance.
"As a Meath footballer, you've seen in the past, it is bred into us to keep going, keep challenging and keep fighting to the end," he says.
"Yeah, Dublin are deservedly favourites. They are league champions, they are playing a very good brand of football and they will have one eye on the All-Ireland title as well."
Last year's Leinster final has little relevance. Both sides have changed managers and from the Meath side that started that day, only eight were still in situ against Wexford last time out. Dublin are likely to have a similar turnover.
Meath played second fiddle for most of that game but still might have forced a goal when three points down at the death.
"They were fairly dominant towards the end of the first half and the start of the second half. In fairness to Meath, we had dominant spells in the second half as well that brought us back into the game," Reilly adds.
"If you look back on the game Meath had a very significant spell in the second half that Dublin didn't really handle too well and we found ourselves back in the game with time running out. Unfortunately, Dublin won it, but we were very much back in that game."
This time Dublin could be too far out of sight for any late revival but, regardless of form, Reilly still believes these games can take on a life of their own.
"There is a massive tradition as we all know of Meath-Dublin Leinster finals and everything that goes with that as well. We've grown up with them and it has this romantic kind of affair in that it brings out the crowds and brings out the best in players as well," he says.
"As a Meath player, I think you are gong to be judged on success. When you hang up your boots you see how many Leinster medals that you have won and how many All-Irelands as well. As a Meath player you are more than likely going to have to beat Dublin along the way to earn a Leinster title."
That challenge has never looked more daunting.