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Harbinson fired up to see Antrim start on right foot

 

Scoring ace: Ryan Murray's accurate finishing can bolster Antrim against Derry in the Allianz League Division Four opener at Corrigan Park, Belfast on Sunday
Scoring ace: Ryan Murray's accurate finishing can bolster Antrim against Derry in the Allianz League Division Four opener at Corrigan Park, Belfast on Sunday
John Campbell

By John Campbell

While several Ulster sides will embark on the Allianz Football League trail this weekend with lofty ambitions, Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson has set himself a rather more modest target - and with good reason.

When his side failed to extract themselves from Division Four last year, it was the loss of three crucial home points in a defeat to Carlow and a draw with Wicklow that ultimately saw his side eclipsed in the run-in to promotion by Laois and Carlow.

It's no surprise then to see Harbinson emphatically setting out his stall in relation to this year's campaign, which commences for his side with a home game against Derry at Corrigan Park, Belfast on Sunday (2.00pm).

Last year's nail-biting climax to the promotion race remains a vivid memory for the Antrim boss who is keen to see his side take the step up into Division Three.

But they must nonetheless launch their campaign against a backdrop of uncertainty and indeed apprehension.

"We are without Kevin O'Boyle and Conor Murray who are long-term injury victims," points out Harbinson.

"But our position is no different to that of many other counties. Yes, we have players unavailable for all sorts of reasons but we have to get on with it.

"We have been carrying a lot of knocks while using the McKenna Cup to blood lots of new players. We had something like seven new players in against Monaghan and others in against Armagh and while some things work, others don't."

"Over the course of the competition we tried to give every player at least a game or maybe a game and a half but from this point onwards the pressure will be on."

Antrim lost to Monaghan and Armagh in the McKenna Cup while defeating St Mary's.

Harbinson will look to players such as Patrick McBride, Patrick Gallagher, Martin Johnston, Niall Delargy, Mark Sweeney, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Ryan Murray to spur his side on, particularly in the opening match against Derry, to which Harbinson attaches considerable importance.

Murray in particular has been fulfilling his role as a sharpshooter with considerable panache and can pose a big threat in the Antrim attack.

"We have home advantage and that's another reason why I am keen to see us hit the ground running," said Harbinson.

"If we manage to get over the line with a one-point win I would be a very happy man."

His Oak Leaf counterpart Damian McErlain has already made it clear that he views his team's debut fixture in the basement division as "absolutely crucial" in their drive to make a quick return to Division Three.

"It's good to see us having made a little bit of progress over the course of our last few games and the boys are working well together," stated McErlain.

"I have been very pleased with the overall effort to date. We have a lot of quality players to come back and compete for starting places in the side and that puts us in a good place, I feel. But Antrim are well-coached and well-drilled and I see it this is as a vital match.

"I don't think we could ask for a tougher League opener. It's up to us to get our performance right because it's going to be a massive, massive confrontation - an absolutely crucial fixture no matter how you look at it ."

McErlain is likely to retain some of the new players who made an impact in the McKenna and among these are Eoghan Concannon, Sean Quinn, Patrick Coney, Jason Rocks and Jack Doherty, while Ben McCarron and Padraig McGrogan have put their hands up for inclusion.

Concannon, Quinn and Coney have been impressive in defence with all three looking particularly useful against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup.

McErlain has been particularly anxious that these players should come to the fore and acknowledges that the League will be a further testing ground for them.

Derry have not enjoyed any degree of League success in recent years and successive managers have had to grapple with the problem of trying to make headway with an under-strength squad.

While he is relieved to have more personnel at his disposal, McErlain feels that the battle for promotion from Division Four will be fraught.

"We are looking no further than this game against Antrim on Sunday," he adds.

"They will have home advantage for starters and that could help them. All teams will be very keen to make an early impact and we are particularly anxious to get points in the bag.

"We made the drop into Division Four in a tense finish to Division Three last year so I think we have learned a lesson from that."

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