ANTRIM skipper Neil McManus pulls no punches in assessing the implications of losing to Carlow in tomorrow's Allianz Hurling League Division 1B shootout at Pairc Tailteann, Navan.
"To be honest, I think that if we were to lose this it would set Antrim back by a year," insists McManus.
"Our manager Kevin Ryan has a development plan in progress and this is linked to the team's progress.
"He has introduced a number of young players and it's absolutely essential that we stay in the top bracket so that they can mature more quickly and we can gain cohesion as a team." McManus, who has led by splendid example in what has been a torrid league campaign, believes that relegation could have serious consequences for the promotion of the sport within the county.
"With all due respect to teams like Derry and Kerry, we need to be pitting ourselves against sides like Limerick, Wexford, Offaly and others if we are to better ourselves," states McManus.
"We have been unable to achieve consistency in the league but all the same the players, and especially the younger guys, have become more acclimatised to the pace, power and physicality of top-flight hurling. We can't take a step down now."
Antrim's only win so far was achieved at Carlow's expense last month when McManus was once again their scorer-in-chief but he is adamant that victory tomorrow with perhaps a better spread of scorers would provide a fresh window of opportunity.
"This is the most important match we will have played for some considerable time, I can't emphasise that strongly enough," declares McManus. "We have to give it everything and hope that this provides us with our Division One passport for next season."
Simon McCrory and Brian McFall are out of contention because of injury but Aaron Graffin, Shane McNaughton, Neal McAuley, Matthew Donnelly and Conor McKinley can help provide the impetus that might take the Saffrons to safety. In their most recent outing, Antrim were somewhat unfortunate to lose out to Offaly.
Carlow, who lost all their scheduled league games, believe they can do themselves justice at last.
Manager John Meyler is urging a big effort from the Midland side, but skipper McManus still believes that Antrim's fitness and belief can carry them through.
"We have it in us to come out on top and that would pave the way for us to go forward in much more confident mode," adds McManus.
Antrim: R McGarry; C McKinley, A Graffin, M McFadden; J McGreevy, N McAuley, P Shiels; M Donnelly, T McCloskey; S Beatty, N McManus, E McCloskey; S McAfee, C Carson, S McNaughton.