IT’S hard to believe that this is Mark Collins’ tenth year in the Cork squad but, while the boyish looks remain, he will turn 30 next month.
That decade has seen the Castlehaven star fill a number of different roles for Cork – playmaking half-forward, target-man inside, midfield, sweeper – with his adaptability a double-edged sword at a time when the Rebels lacked men in key areas.
Cork’s slide has seen them drop to Division 3, with Offaly providing the opposition for the league opener at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday (6pm). Collins has seen a lot in his time on the panel, but the hope is that the worst is over and the outlook is more positive now.
‘When I came in that time, Cork were just after winning the All-Ireland and they were competing for Division 1 titles on a regular basis,’ he says.
‘It looked like you were coming into a very successful team but things change pretty quickly. It’s hard to see where the time has gone.
‘When I first came in, there were so many leaders and experienced heads in there who had been around and played in a lot of All-Ireland finals and semi-finals over the previous few years.
‘I was coming in as a very young, inexperienced lad, but when you’ve been there for so long it’s completely changed.
‘We have a very young panel now, with the U20s coming in, it’s totally different and you’re one of the more senior fellas. There’s definitely a better feeling around Cork football, all around the county.
‘You had the minors and U20s last year plus the seniors getting the Super 8s, that gives the supporters a bit of confidence coming into this year.
‘At the same time, we know we’re still down in Division 3, we haven’t achieved anything really as a senior team. Our big game is the Offaly one, to start off on a good note.’
Cork’s main priority is promotion back to Division 2 at the first attempt. As well as the main prize, though, there is an extra carrot with the advent of the second-tier championship.
If Cork don’t get promoted, it would mean that they would go into the Munster SFC clash with Kerry having to win to remain in the Sam Maguire.
‘There's probably an added significance with the top two promoted getting into Sam Maguire,’ Collins says.
‘Every year when you start off the league is important to you. Last year was obviously disappointing to get relegated down to Division 3. There's only one way we can fix that and that's to go back up, but we have to start well.
‘We probably haven't won our first game in the league in three or four years.’
They will be favourites to beat Offaly and are also among the fancies for promotion, but such a status means they every team sees them as a scalp and Collins knows that nothing can be taken for granted.
‘Exactly,’ he says, ‘not using any clichés or anything but every game is going to be tough.
‘We have a couple of very difficult away games. I see Offaly and Longford doing very well in the O’Byrne Cup, we have Longford away and we struggled to beat them in the championship a few years ago.
‘We know that will be no easy game, then you have the northern teams coming down as well. They’re all going to be tough games and if you’re not tuned in at all, you’re in trouble. We’ve seen over the last few years, when we’ve gone into games as favourites, we’re only a very average team if we’re not tuned in.
‘It’s all about attitude and getting the heads right to perform.’
Good home form is of course a must, though the Cork footballers have yet to win at the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Collins makes the point that home results in general have been poor rather than just focusing on the newer venue.
‘It hasn’t really been talked about around the place,’ he says, ‘but we know our home form hasn’t been good over the years.
‘Even last year, we went up to Armagh, a very tough place to go, and got a win, whereas we had no victory in Páirc Uí Chaoimh or Páirc Uí Rinn, which was very disappointing.
‘Definitely, the Offaly game is where we want to set the ball rolling with a good start.’