IT might be the last football championship to start, with the minors in Kerry tonight and the seniors out on May 26, but there will still be significant interest in the new U20 series.
For Cork, it’s a fresh start after nightmarish outings against the Kingdom last spring at U21 and at minor before it switched from U18 to U17.
The provincial draw places Cork into a quarter-final against Tipp on June 16, but they’re at home and will be in the semi-final against Clare too if they progress.
A likely Munster final with Kerry would follow and wing-back Liam O’Donovan, who represented Cork at the recent Eirgrid launch, says preparations have been excellent to date.
“This is the first year of the U20 grade and it’ll be intriguing to see how it goes. You’re playing in the summer too, so it’s in better weather, the game should be even faster and the harder the pitch the easier it is to play a kick-passing style.
“We’ve been training away since before Christmas, mainly gym sessions and we were back with our clubs in April, but we’re getting two pitch sessions a week now, with a game on the weekend.”
The core of the team will be drawn from the 2016 minors, which included Kevin O’Donovan (Nemo), Éire Óg powerhouse Colm O’Callaghan, Dohenys’ ace Mark Buckley and nimble Kilmac attacker Damien Gore.
They lost a belter of a Munster final 3-14 to 3-8 to Kerry, before an All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Donegal in a game they should have won.
Keeper Mark White is unlikely to feature as he’ll be tied up with the Cork seniors, but then Kerry will be short David Clifford and Séan O’Shea on that basis.
“Last year’s U21 final was hugely disappointing and a lot of this panel (of 31) were involved so we’ve a good bit to prove.
“At minor we were probably happy enough just to get to the Munster final. That wasn’t anybody’s fault but we knew we were against an exceptional Kerry team.
“We have to go into this championship now with ambition. Seán Hayes is our manager and he got Cork to the U21 All-Ireland in 2016 and they could have won that game against Mayo, it was a lot tighter than the scoreboard at the end.
“Cork football teams have to be pushing hard for trophies. For us to do that we’ve to be ready to hit the ground running against Tipp in June.”
Nemo legend Hayes is joined in the management team by Aidan Kelleher, Gene O’Driscoll, Jim O’Donoghue, and Seanie Bowens.
There will be no half-measures in the build-up, even if the timing of the new championship cuts across the Leaving Cert.
O’Donovan is in UCC, studying PE, and eager to take every opportunity that comes his way. A Clon native he is hopeful his club are moving in the right direction as well.
“While the club scene is intense it’s still a different level to inter-county and every player enjoys getting to pull on his club jersey. We’ve a young team with most of the lads U23, U21 even.
“We didn’t manage to get the better of Rosscabery, but we were a lot better than we’d been 12 months ago. We’d taken a bit of confidence from the league last year because we beat Ross in the semi-final and we came very close to Ballincollig in the final.
“At underage, with Clon, we were very successful but coming into the senior championship at 18 is a different ball game. We’d still think we can be contending for county titles in time, but we’ve Newcestown now in the backdoor and they’re always fierce tough.”
O’Donovan lined out at wing-back in the recent SFC tie and that’s where he is most comfortable, though he wore the number four geansaí for Cork at minor against Kerry and Donegal. His role model is an iconic Rebel wing-back from the recent past, Noel O’Leary.
“Noel was my favourite Cork player growing up. He was a hard man, but he had serious football as well. He was a minor selector with us a couple of years ago and he was so calm off the field.
“He was tough as nails in the big matches, but he was a great influence for all of us on the minors.”
Of the current senior stars, Dublin and Mayo offer two obvious benchmarks.
“Lee Keegan and Jack McCaffery are the two best out there now. They can bomb up and down the line all day, but they’re also able to man-mark when it’s needed. That’s not easy.”
In modern parlance, the middle-eight is a fluid sector where wing-forwards track back as much as wing-backs.
“You could say being wing-back is like being more of a forward now alright and Seán Hayes does encourage us to drive up the field. Counter-attacking is a major part of any team’s tactics.
“Still you can’t be abandoning your position without looking at the bigger picture. That’s where the teamwork comes in, you have to know someone will cover you.”
Teamwork makes the dream work... we’ll find out this summer if Cork can do just that.