Championship number 10 begins this Saturday evening for Paul Kerrigan and it is a changed landscape since 2008. Notably, it’s not for the better.

Nemo Rangers’ run to the All-Ireland club final that year saw a 21-year-old Kerrigan elevated to the Cork set-up and he was the final sub introduced in the county’s 1-16 to 1-11 Munster final win over Kerry. He’d even throw over an injury-time point.

In the present set-up, those who don’t have a provincial medal in their back pocket far outweigh those who do; Kerrigan is one of nine survivors who saw action in the 2012 final rout of Clare. That was his fifth campaign and, by the close of 2012, he had collected three Division 1 league medals, three Munster medals, and a Celtic cross.

Since then? Slim pickings: He and the rest of Cork football have had to make do with two McGrath Cups. There’s been relegation from the league’s top tier and failure to land a knockout blow on one of the big-hitters in the championship over the past three years. Indeed, the list of counties they’ve overcome during that period — Limerick, Longford, Clare, Tipperary, and Sligo — doesn’t make for inspired reading.

The recent failings of Cork football have been playing on repeat for some time now and, yet, Kerrigan’s enthusiasm for the road ahead hasn’t waned in the slightest.

“This is my 10th season and, in the first five years, we were the team to beat. Now, we are trying to get up there again. It is a different challenge,” he says. “There are a lot of lads in this panel with underage success, but they’ve never played in an All-Ireland semi, have never won a medal with the seniors.”

Kerrigan has played in five All-Ireland semi-finals and he feels this Cork team can work their way back into the conversation of late August.

“I think the top four are Dublin, Mayo, Kerry, and either Donegal or Tyrone. We could have had Donegal last year. We’ve pushed Dublin close in the league in recent years. I definitely think we are capable of catching one of them on our day. We’d like to just get back to the August Bank Holiday weekend and push on then to the semi-finals, just challenging the top four and seeing where we are at.”

Other men familiar with August fare are Paddy Kelly, Daniel Goulding, and Fintan Goold. They stepped off the inter-county carousel over the winter, hammering home the reality that time is of the essence.

“They would be three close friends of mine. We played minor together and three years U21. When the lads retired, I was saying: ‘What are they doing?’ I am determined to stay going as long as I can, to get the most out of it, to get back involved in the big games and to help out the young lads to get their first medal,” said the Cork captain, who turns 31 this year.

“I try and delegate to other lads to help them grow into the leadership roles because in two or three years, I will be gone and it will be their team.

“I am not going to walk away because we are not at the top table. I love playing for Cork. I don’t know anything different. I’ll be here for another couple of years. I learned that from Alan Quirke and Nicholas Murphy. They got the most out of it, every last drop. I am not done yet.”

Cork’s road to championship redemption takes them to Dungarvan this weekend and, bar Eoin Cadogan and Brian O’Driscoll, management have close to a full hand to pick from. Kerrigan reckons the injury-free nature of the camp is linked to the enormous work they have put into improving their fitness under S&C coach Robbie Williams.

“We would have felt last year after looking at the figures that we weren’t up with the top four teams. It is not a slight on anyone, we just weren’t there... Last year, there were something like 12 lads who played championship but played no league. Lads were breaking down with injury. That hasn’t been the case this year. The fitness work doesn’t guarantee results but it does give you a better chance. It puts us in a better position. It is up to us to take it from there.”

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