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Lenny Harbinson

Lenny Harbinson

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Lenny Harbinson

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson may envy those of his counterparts who can boast settled panels from the beginning of the season, but he nonetheless prefers to leave the door open to accommodate emerging talent and former county players seeking to resurrect their careers.

As his team prepare for what he views as "an absolutely critical period", Harbinson takes comfort from the fact that the possibility of exiting Division Four of the Allianz Football League is still a credible notion.

Having beaten Wexford and London, and lost to Sligo by a single point in somewhat controversial circumstances, Harbinson believes it is now time for his side to raise their game another notch if they are to move up in the world.

With home games against an erratic Carlow and top-placed Limerick looming, Harbinson is convinced that the outcome of these two fixtures will determine his team's destiny this year.

At the outset of the league, the Saffrons manager expressed the hope that he might further along the line achieve the blend of youth and experience he was seeking, and the returns of Tomás McCann, Paddy Cunningham and Michael McCann in particular has brought him closer to realising his goal.

"In what is an amateur sport, people have work commitments to fulfil and family duties to perform. As you move along things can change and become more fluid at times. As a manager you have to try and be flexible rather than overseeing a draconian regime," pointed out Harbinson.

"I am happy enough with where we find ourselves at the minute but there is no doubt that these two games against Carlow and Limerick will shape our league. You have to try and perform a balancing act by keeping the players who have given commitment since the start of the season happy while at the same time trying to accommodate those who have drifted back into the panel.

"That's one of the joys of management."

Since their appearance in the 2009 Ulster final, Antrim have compiled a catalogue of underachievement and Harbinson is desperately keen to rewrite this script.

"We are on the cusp of an absolutely critical period. We can't afford to drop any more points if we want to get into Division Three and we will evaluate the situation over the next couple of weeks as to how those who have come into our squad recently are getting on," he pointed out.

Harbinson is in no doubt as to just what he expects from his side as the league hots up.

"Because we have lost one game and drawn another to date, we simply cannot afford to drop any more points," he insisted. "So the pressure is on to keep winning if we can."

For all that football runs deep in Antrim, the plus factors at inter-county level are difficult to pinpoint spanning recent years, which is one of the reasons why Harbinson holds his own particular view on the current league campaign.

"The fact of the matter is that the league, in essence, is our Championship as I see it," he stressed.

"It's absolutely vital that we get up into Division Three. It may have taken us a little while to get some players back, and it is a well-known fact that we lost players like Ryan Murray and Matthew Fitzpatrick before the league who are not easily replaced, but with Tomás McCann, Paddy Cunningham and Michael McCann back in there again, this will help to give the younger players further pride in the jersey and obviously stiffen up competition for starting places.

"This is essential if we are to make significant headway in the league and we have to apply ourselves fully to these two forthcoming games against Carlow and Limerick. The evidence is there that the players who have come back in again have previously given long-standing commitment to the Antrim cause and they can now help to give a lead to the young players."

Meanwhile, the Laois v Cavan fixture in Division Two which was postponed because the O'Moore Park, Portlaoise pitch was unplayable last weekend will now take place there this Sunday (1pm).

With Cavan having bounced back from their heavy defeat to Armagh by overcoming Westmeath, they now have an opportunity to move further up the table, although Laois manager Michael Quirke, the former Kerry All-Ireland winner, is taking great encouragement from his team's eclipse of the Orchard County.

"We were not expected to win that game but I honestly think we showed great spirit and no little skill in coming out on top," he maintained.

Belfast Telegraph