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O hAilpin: We've a long way to go to catch Kilkenny

IT was Seán Og O hAilpín's birthday yesterday. He's 35 but still carries the physique of a well-constructed man in his mid-20s.

He talks, however, with the enthusiasm of a colt just graduated from minor and eager to make a visible and audible impression.

Yet there was a moment in the early stages of the unexpected resurrection of his Cork senior career when he realised that times -- and he himself -- have changed.

It was in Páirc Uí Chaoímh in the dressing rooms under the main stand and he walked in towards his usual spot on the bench beside Donal Óg Cusack, stopped and noticed the school uniform of Leaving Cert student and new team-mate Darren Sweetnam hanging from one of the pegs.

"I was saying: 'What's going on here? I must be moving on.'"

But he's still there, rigidly enjoying his Indian summer. A full year away from inter-county hurling and then Jimmy Barry-Murphy comes along and drags him back away from the real world for another season in red.

"I honestly felt that was it," he recalls. "I couldn't see another manager risking playing me. They were looking to the future as opposed to the past. I thought it was curtains.

"Luckily for me, Jimmy Barry-Murphy was probably one of the only managers out there that, if he got the job, would have at least contacted me. And that's what happened.

"It was like an open invitation. There was no guarantee of anything. Absolutely anything. He just said, 'Look, if you want to come back in ... see how you're getting on in pre-season and see how the hunger is going'."

He started the league in midfield, moved back to wing-back and aside from the changing faces of his colleagues, it all seems the same as before.

There have, however, been lows. The loss of his friend and fellow icon Cusack is, he feels, the worst possible blow the Rebels might have to endure all season.

Which says plenty, given it happened in a league final when Cork were blown apart by their great nemesis, Kilkenny.

"We made good strides to get there," Ó hAilpín maintains. "But we're alarmingly a long way off to walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand.

"They're seasoned players, loads of All-Ireland medals, a settled system, a manager who has been there for over a decade and a phenomenal tradition ... it's hard.


"Tactically and structurally, we have to get something in place for this year. But when you're trying to compete with what Kilkenny have ... we're still behind. But you have to start from somewhere."

Despite the buzz on Leeside about the return of a legendary manager, a wave of sprouting talents and Ó hAilpín's own renaissance, he is staunchly of the opinion that 2012 is about "trying to put down the building blocks".

He adds: "Being honest about it, we're not expecting silverware this year. That's being frank," before his own optimism begins to seep through: "There's only one way it can go ... closer to back where we think we should be."

Still, a year ago, he was sitting in the stands, looking for ways to kill time and quench his longing to be out there again.

"It's phenomenal. You literally live in a bubble and you're oblivious to what's going on in the outside world and that's the way it was for 14 or 15 years.

"It was only last year that it dawned on me that there's something outside the bubble. You're thinking, I've time to do something on a Saturday, I can tell the girlfriend I can do things at weekends.

"But look, you want to play as long as you can and I still felt I had something to give. How long that's going to be? I don't know. It could be gone after this year."

Don't bet on it.