The main success story of a mixed spring, the Kilmichael player has assumed ownership of the number 14 shirt, providing a different aspect to the Rebels’ play and contributing directly – either scoring or assisting – to all but two of the nine goals scored across seven matches.
He can add to his burgeoning reputation when Cork face Mayo today in the EirGrid All-Ireland U21FC final in Cusack Park in Ennis, but he admits that even he didn’t expect to become so involved, so quickly.
“Personally, no,” he says.
“I took my chances in a way, I was lucky in another way. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be playing in Croke Park in this league campaign, to get a chance was brilliant.
“I thought I’d be focusing more on the U21s for the first part of the season, but then I got the opportunity and I was playing away. Once I stayed injury-free it was alright, it might have been complicated if I did pick up something, but to get my opportunity with the seniors was great.”
This year hasn’t been his first experience of a Cork intercounty scene, though.
“I played Waterford Crystal Cup, in January 2015,” Kelleher says.
“It was a great experience playing under Jimmy Barry-Murphy but my hurling probably wasn’t really up to it. I was left off the panel and told go back to the U21 hurlers but I was involved with the U21 footballers then and that went well enough for me, so I stuck with it.
“I would have no first love, I just played them as the games came. I’m in a strong enough position now, I’m happy.”
The second-year accounting student in CIT has plenty of reason to be satisfied, not least with the impressive way Cork have made it to today’s final. Straightforward wins in the opening rounds of the Munster championship against Clare and Waterford led to a one-point win in the final against Kerry.
Kelleher believes that the tailoring of the preparations was a key factor.
“We looked at it at the start of the year as our five-step plan,” he says.
“We knew that we had to get through the first two games without being complacent. That gave us a good training block as well coming into the Kerry game, we knew that we had a good chance of winning down in Tralee.
“The first two games really helped us, two wins on the road – we were on the road for all our games – so to go to Tralee with those behind us was good. Winning there helped us kick on again.”
What made that all the more satisfying was that it showed Cork could win in different ways, especially as the ease of the first two victories led to concerns that they wouldn’t be ready for a Kingdom side which had squeezed past Tipperary and Limerick.
“You could say that, it was probably some people’s perspective that we hadn’t been tested yet,” Kelleher says.
“We were tested in Tralee and it really showed what we were capable of, it was a big confidence-booster to come through it. We were lucky – well, not lucky, it was a good result – and we’re taking things as they come now.”
Kelleher’s siting at full-forward has been something he has had to adjust to, having been a midfielder on impressive De La Salle Macroom school teams.
“I always played as a midfielder,” he says, “my days as a full-forward only came in the past year.
“The game has changed. There’s different tactics, you’ve a plan B and C now, there’s always a different option. My days in De La Salle Macroom were very beneficial, playing Corn Uí Mhuirí was a great bonus to a young player.
“I lost two finals, we lost to Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne three years in a row, it was unfortunate. They kicked on and won Hogan Cups, but I gained a lot out of playing colleges football.”
The differences in the two roles haven’t been insurmountable.
“You’re lucky in a way, you still have to work but it’s a different game inside there,” he says.
“You make short bursts rather than long runs back. It didn’t take too much.
“This year, I’m after really adjusting to it. The goalscoring, I’m still trying to work that one out, there’s the odd accident alright!”
Of course, having Brian Coakley and Michael Hurley either side of him is a help too, ensuring that defences can’t just focus on one threat.
“Brian nearly single-handedly won a Premier Intermediate championship for Carrigaline last year, he was one of their most influential players,” he says.
“Michael is absolutely electric, he can play on the 40 as well. We have a lot of balance inside. You can play high balls, short balls, low balls, so playing a sweeper in front of one of us gives our backs a greater chance on the kickout and then we have the ability to win our own ball inside.”