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Harbinson is in search of an early boost for Saffrons

 

Tough start: Lenny Harbinson’s Antrim face an early season test in the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup today against Monaghan
Tough start: Lenny Harbinson’s Antrim face an early season test in the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup today against Monaghan
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson knows that his side could have asked for a rather more straightforward introduction to the new season than today's meeting with beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists Monaghan in the opening round of the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup at Clones (2.00pm).

Yet even though he will be missing several players for a variety of reasons, Harbinson is convinced that today's tie and those coming up against Armagh and St Mary's over the next fortnight will serve as adequate preparation for his team's drive to gain promotion from Division Four of the Allianz League.

And they will serve as an opportunity for new faces to catch the eye given the number of players who are not currently available to Harbinson.

Peter Healy, Joe Maskey, Odhran Eastwood and Kristian Healy are currently preparing for St Enda's clash with Spiddal in the All-Ireland intermediate club semi-final; Conor Murray is a long-term cruciate ligament injury victim; Kevin O'Boyle is awaiting surgery for a muscular problem and Chris Kerr has called time on his inter-county career.

During the summer, Antrim lost to Down at the first hurdle in the Ulster Championship (1-18 to 0-14) before surprisingly falling to an unsung Offaly team by 2-20 to 1-15 in the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

It was these defeats coming on the back of his team's failure to extricate themselves from Division Four that convinced Harbinson there is much hard work to be done.

"Obviously the challenge for us now is to try and build a bit of momentum starting with this match against Monaghan," he points out.

"We had been hoping to get a run in the qualifiers this year but that did not happen. We have not had two games in the qualifiers for a long while."

Indeed, Antrim's last win in the qualifiers was three years ago against a then struggling Laois.

Harbinson's apt summary of Antrim's recent experience of Championship football convinces him that his side needs to make an early impact this time round.

"Our focus in the immediate future has to be to get out of Division Four and trying to move to the next level where you are playing against better opposition," states Harbinson.

While youth is certain to get a fling, Harbinson still has a platoon of players available to him who have shown that they can do justice to the Saffron jersey.

Into this category come Niall Delargy, Patrick McBride, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Ryan Murray, Mark Sweeney, Patrick Gallagher and the Johnston brothers Ricky and Martin.

Harbinson's counterpart Malachy O'Rourke will also take the opportunity to assess new talent.

"We have been carrying a big panel of late and this means that a number of players maybe did not get all the game time they would have liked, so the McKenna Cup gives us as management the opportunity to weigh things up a little more going forward," says O'Rourke.

"Obviously we would be keen to make progress in the competition because that would give us an extra game under our belts which would do us no harm at all."

"Most teams now like to hit the ground running at the dawn of a new season and we would be no exception to that. We have a good complement of players and we are very keen to make an impact in the league after the McKenna Cup."

Just recently, Monaghan goalkeeper Rory Beggan picked up a coveted All-Star award and he believes that the team will now be striving to go the extra mile in the All-Ireland Championship, in particular having lost out to Tyrone by a solitary point in the semi-final this year.

"We were very disappointed with the way in which we missed out in the Ulster Championship, although we thought that when we got to the All-Ireland semi-finals we might be able to book our place in the final, but it just wasn't to be," concedes Beggan.

"But over the past few weeks we have been getting our minds and our bodies right for the new season. This year has been particularly long so it was great to get a bit of down time lately but although Monaghan missed out on the major honours I would still have to say that it was one of the most enjoyable years I have had since joining the panel."

"This game against Antrim today is our opening test of the new campaign and we are ready for it. You want to get games under your belt at this time of the year to prepare for the more difficult challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead, that's the way we like to look at it."

"The fact that the weather is still quite mild should help to bring out the supporters and this in turn should make for a better atmosphere at matches. I know that Monaghan followers may have been disappointed at times at what they witnessed in 2018 but I have no doubt that they will get behind the side again and give the lads the kind of support they always do."

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