MICHAEL CUSSEN, the forgotten man of Cork hurling, is in line for a recall to the county senior hurling squad in 2013.
Cussen has been in fine form for senior champions Sarsfields, who take on Tipperary counterparts Thurles Sarsfields in today's Munster club semi-final, and speculation is mounting that the 27-year-old will be recalled to Jimmy Barry-Murphy's panel.
Following a couple of years on Conor Counihan's football panel, the 6' 7" giant made six senior hurling championship appearances in 2010 and played in the 2011 league, but has been out of the inter-county spotlight since.
Local reports indicate, however, that Cussen, who was full-forward on the Munster championship under 21 winning team of 2005, has impressed sufficiently at club level to catapult him back into the limelight. Barry-Murphy and his selectors are making no comment on the formation of their panel until the new year but it seems Cussen is very much in their plans.
"Michael scored two points from full-forward in Sarsfields' county final win over Bishopstown and another good showing today will do him no harm at all," says one observer. "But no matter what happens this afternoon, he has been a dangerman all year. He's been out of the inter-county scene in both codes for a while and not everyone would have agreed with that.
"He's still a couple of years off 30, has plenty of big game experience and the feeling here is that he didn't really get a proper cut at it in 2010 when he was moved to wing- and centre-forward quite a bit with Aisake (ó hAilpín) mostly manning the edge of the square. His physical threat would be considerable, especially with so many players leaving the squad in recent times."
Cussen came off the bench in all of Cork's Munster championship games in 2010 -- against Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford -- and then featured for the entire game in the provincial final replay against Waterford which went to extra-time. He also started the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Antrim but was back on the bench in the semi-final defeat to Kilkenny. By the time the 2011 championship rolled around, he had faded into the background.
But with Cork needing a more physical element to their attack -- and possibly the option of the long ball -- it looks like the curtain has not yet closed on Cussen's top-flight career despite past criticisms of his speed and mobility at the top level.
A return for Cussen would reflect the continuing evolution of Barry-Murphy's panel which will be without another prominent and experienced campaigner, Niall McCarthy, who is also out of the management's plans next season.
McCarthy was plagued with injuries last season but still managed to show his quality with four points from play against Wexford in this year's championship. One of Cork's most impressive forwards in recent years, he scored 0-8 from four championship games in 2011 and 1-11 from six outings the year before and he will be a big loss to the side's attack. An enthusiastic half-forward with an accurate, long-range radar, he will be especially missed for his ball-winning ability, but it has been suggested that he could now go travelling after not making the cut.
With Seán óg ó hAilpín, John Gardiner, Darren Sweetnam and Dónal óg Cusack also expected to be off the first 15, it will be a massive task for Barry-Murphy to continue his progression with results going in tandem. Cusack has reportedly been informed that he will not be first-choice 'keeper at the start of 2013 and will have to battle with promising young netminder Darren McCarthy for the number 16 shirt. In his first significant championship season, Anthony Nash has proven himself, delivered an All Star and the feeling locally is that he should now be left develop.
But the Cloyne man is well down the road of recovery and has readily accepted the challenge put to him by the management. He has worked exceptionally hard over the past four months to put himself on the road to recovery.
Gardiner, who is only 29, is said to be very disappointed with his exclusion from the panel as he felt he had a lot to offer. He featured throughout the league for Cork but only managed 19 minutes of championship game time this year, coming on as a sub against Waterford.
Despite the fact that he was a positive influence on the younger players this year, it's believed he was informed that there would be no place for him as management was opting for youth, even though they insist the door remains open for a possible return. Such a focus on the future may also have influenced Seán óg ó hAilpín, who had a decent 2012 campaign before announcing his retirement last week. With Barry-Murphy clearly opting for the stars of tomorrow, game time would also have been limited for the iconic Na Piarsaigh man.
The big question now is who can replace these players as leaders. The Rebels haven't enjoyed much success at minor or under 21 level lately. They haven't landed an All-Ireland minor title since 2001 and an under 21 title since 1998.
Sweetnam was widely tipped as a genuine leader in waiting but his move to Munster rugby has robbed Cork of one of the most promising talents of the past 10 years. It would now appear that the crucial centre-back role will be handed to Chris Joyce.
But apart from the likely reintroduction of Cussen, it seems Barry-Murphy and his backroom team will largely have to be satisfied with the new talent they unearthed over the past 11 months.
Fintan O'Leary, who saw league action during Denis Walsh's tenure, could be recalled due to his form with Ballinhassig who are now back up at senior level. A Fitzgibbon Cup winner with WIT in 2008, he was also team captain when they lost the final to NUI Galway and is firmly in the frame for a recall.
Also in the picture is Peter O'Brien of Kildorrery who landed the Cork junior title last Sunday. O'Brien represented the county at minor and under 21 and now 25 he has displayed enough potential to suggest he is worth a look at.
Only three players from Cork's last All-Ireland-winning squad remain in tow -- Cusack, Brian Murphy and Tom Kenny. He may have kept the door open for the experienced campaigners in his first year back, but it's clear now that Barry-Murphy wants to put his own stamp on the team.