Antrim face daunting task in bid to avoid the drop, admits Fitzsimons
Antrim joint manager Frank Fitzsimons has warned his side to roll up their sleeves and be prepared for "the fight of their lives" as they get set for the crucial second phase of the Allianz Football League.
The Saffrons plundered an unlikely victory against undefeated Sligo last weekend and now face an even tougher challenge against Division Three leaders Louth in Drogheda on Sunday.
"It's dog eat dog out there," said Fitzsimons. "This is a very tough division we are in and we have got to show that we can stand up for ourselves. We have to fight for our lives.
"All the matches are tough and physical and it is abundantly clear already that there is a fine margin separating promotion and relegation. The pressure is really on and we have to respond to this."
Fitzsimons' assessment of life in Division Three is certainly spot on. Should his side manage to overcome Louth, they could conceivably jump from the basement of the table to second place depending on how other results go.
"Our destiny is in our own hands. Three of our first four matches are away from home and that's a tall order so we are used to being on the road. But we must get on with it and I believe that we have the willpower and the ability to stay up," added Fitzsimons.
And as Antrim prepare for a demanding itinerary that embraces Sunday's clash with Louth, home games against Laois and Longford and a trip to Armagh, Fitzsimons' managerial partner Gearoid Adams robustly rubbishes the theory that inter-county football is now a young man's game.
Adams is convinced that the more experienced players are still capable of fulfilling key roles in the modern game although, somewhat ironically, the Saffrons are currently battling on without some of their most venerable foot soldiers including Kevin Niblock, Sean McVeigh and Niall Delargy.
But the welcome mat will be out for that trio and other older hands when they are fully fit to resume duty.
"I know that more and more people are buying into the belief that inter-county football is a young man's game, but if you look at the composition of most county teams you will see players who are around the 30-mark still doing the business," insisted Adams.
"Look at Sean Cavanagh with Tyrone, Andy Moran with Mayo and Ciaran McKeever with Armagh and you will see what I mean. In Antrim, we are very pleased with the progress the newcomers to our side have made but we are certainly not dispensing with any of our experienced troops."
The Saffrons may be without some of their wise old heads but a clutch of new faces have not been slow to make their presence felt. UCD student Peter Healy and Paddy McAleer have slotted comfortably into the half-back line, bringing added vitality to the side.
"Then we have the more experienced Ryan Murray who is playing superbly at the minute while the likes of Matthew Fitzpatrick, Patrick McBride and others are making a huge impression," pointed out Adams.
"At this point in time, with the notable exceptions of CJ McGourty and Conor Murray, the average age of our side is under 24-years-old although this might creep up slightly when some of our more senior citizens come back into the frame.
"The important thing is that the players we have in there are very comfortable in the inter-county arena and they will get even better when they have more games under their belt."
Armagh, meanwhile, have been strengthened at a critical point in the league by the return of Jamie Clarke, Andrew Murnin and Brendan Donaghy, all of whom started against Longford last Sunday.
The vastly experienced Ciaran McKeever was given a few minutes of game time towards the end by manager Kieran McGeeney, who is particularly anxious to see his Orchard line-up become more settled.
"It's great to have these sorts of players back in again. Andrew Murnin in particular has been out for some 18 months and has faced a hard road back to full fitness and I am very pleased for him," said McGeeney.
Clarke landed three points when introduced as a substitute against Laois before starting against Longford last Sunday and helping himself to 1-1.
McGeeney does not mince his words in contemplating Sunday's showdown with Offaly at the Athletic Grounds.
"It will be tough, hard-hitting and aggressive but then these are the kind of games that can stand you in good stead for the summer," asserted McGeeney.