Antrim's promotion quest hit as quartet set to miss out
Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson always knew his side would find it difficult to extricate themselves from Division Four of the Allianz Football League.
But suddenly a combination of circumstances dictates that his team's task will now be rendered even more intimidating.
Having chalked up three wins and a draw from their first four matches, Antrim's chances of improving their status had been enhanced.
However, Sunday's reversal at the hands of pacesetters Carlow and the fact that four top players - Niall McKeever, Sean Burke, Patrick McBride and Ryan Murray - will be unavailable to start in Sunday's crucial away game against Limerick because of a combination of illness and injury has left the Saffrons with a mountain to climb.
Harbinson is now likely to turn to players such as Michael McCarry, Odhran Eastwood and Kristian Healy to bolster his side as they bid to remain in the hunt for a place in Division Three.
"Our main focus now is on Limerick this weekend. While we are very disappointed with the outcome of our game against Carlow on Sunday, we still feel we can keep in the frame to go up although the task is tougher now," admits Harbinson.
"We badly need to get a result from this game against Limerick and see where that takes us."
Antrim's fate is not necessarily in their own hands, either. With Carlow and second-placed Laois due to meet on Sunday, the Saffrons will not only be hoping to claim the two points on offer against Limerick but they will also be hoping that Carlow can beat Laois thus adding considerable relevance to the Laois v Antrim re-fixture over the course of Easter weekend.
But should Limerick beat Antrim this would render the clash between Harbinson's men and Laois irrelevant and thus the divisional final between Laois and Carlow would go ahead on the weekend after this.
Antrim, though, can elicit a crumb of comfort from Carlow manager Terence O'Brien who certainly does not mince his words in assessing his team's confrontation with Laois on Sunday. Carlow may already have clinched promotion but O'Brien provides firm confirmation that they intend to complete their scheduled league itinerary undefeated.
"We always want to beat Laois because they are our neighbours and biggest rivals," declares O'Brien. "There wouldn't be any love lost between the counties."
Carlow look to be in pole position not only to win but to claim the divisional title having built impressively on the fine form they showed in last year's All-Ireland championship when they progressed as far as Round 3B of the qualifiers.
Antrim boss Harbinson, meanwhile, hopes to finalise his team tonight for what is one of the most important matches in his team's recent history.
The Saffrons yearn to leave Division Four behind them not just because they wish to improve their status but because with the impending refurbishment of Casement Park and a greater focus on the development of GAA in the Belfast urban area, it is viewed as encouraging if the county's flagship team is seen to be competing at a higher level.
"I think we have learned as we have progressed in the league but it's important that we maintain our discipline. Against Carlow we conceded scores from easy frees so we have to guard against indiscipline.
"I think the boys are working very hard and showing tremendous pride in the jersey but sometimes fine margins can define matches. We will certainly be giving it everything against Limerick in the hope of getting the right result," added Harbinson.
The loss of Ryan Murray and Patrick McBride in particular from their attack will be a significant blow to Antrim as the duo have been very much to the fore recently.
McBride has made the transition from defender to attacking ace while Murray, along with his brother Connor, has been a key cog in the team's attacking armoury.
Niall McKeever, who played at midfield when Antrim lost to Tyrone in the 2009 Ulster championship final, can bring considerable experience to the table while Sean Burke is a whole-hearted player who has won an All-Ireland club medal with St Gall's.
"These are not the kind of players that any manager wants to be without particularly for important games but we have to get on with it," said Harbinson. "We have a good squad and it's up to the players who will be on duty on Sunday to show that they can do. It's a big challenge I know but we have to show that we can rise to the occasion."