Ulster SFC: Harbinson hindered by Antrim absenteeism as they approach Tyrone tie

Lenny Harbinson's side lost four of their Division Four games in the Spring
Lenny Harbinson is facing into his second championship campaign with Antrim
2019 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Antrim v Tyrone
Date: Saturday 25 May Venue: Athletic Grounds, Armagh Throw-in: 18:00 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Northern Ireland & BBC iPlayer from 17:45 BST; live commentary on BBC Radio Ulster MW and BBC Sport website

Lenny Harbinson says Antrim will aim to "put in a very good performance" against Tyrone on Saturday despite their severely under-strength squad.

The manager is reluctant to highlight Antrim's absenteeism but the facts speak for themselves.

"Out of the team that finished the campaign against Offaly last year, there are 10 starters missing from the panel," says the Antrim boss.

"Around about 16 seasoned inter-county footballers in total [are absent]."

Different players have different reasons for the absences and Harbinson, who was appointed Antrim boss in September 2017, is careful to point that long-standing Saffron servant Mark Sweeney and his fellow Dublin-based Peter Healy are unavailable because they are in the middle of important exams.

"Mark Sweeney and Peter Healy are two tremendous footballers but there is a big commitment from county football and the travel never mind having to turn up for training four or five nights a week.

"So it is disappointing when they do leave but you have got to look at it both from their education and work and trying to balance sport in between and our challenges are probably no different to many other counties," adds Harbinson, who guided St Gall's to the 2010 All-Ireland Club title.

Mark Sweeney is among a long list of absentees for Antrim
Dublin-based Mark Sweeney is unavailable for Antrim's Ulster Championship tie because of exam commitments

Narrow defeats end promotion hopes

With players continuing to drift from the squad as the Spring went on, Harbinson's avowed main season aim of getting the Saffrons out of Division Four did not materialise as his side's hopes were extinguished by three opening defeats.

However, a closer examination of those losses shows that they included one-point defeats by both Derry and Leitrim, who went on to clinch the two promotion spots.

In between those games, Antrim lost by four points in Wexford while their other defeat in the Spring campaign was another one-point reverse against Waterford in Fraher Field.

"A lot of boys put their hands up and committed to the cause and I was very pleased with their application and commitment," says Harbinson of the league campaign.

"So although Division Four was disappointing, when you take everything in the round, without many established players and other players not really wanting to commit, it made it a difficult campaign but towards the end we steadied the ship and started to put some results together."

Antrim players must embrace Saturday's big stage

Harbinson, however, admits that Antrim's continuing presence in Division Four severely hinders the prospect of the county having an extended summer in the championship.

"You need to be up around Division Two and you need to be there for a number of years because you are playing against a better calibre of footballer and stronger counties and that challenges both the individual and collective of the team.

"Until we get there, in my view, it's going to be very difficult to compete in Ulster."

But while a realist, Harbinson has to retain some vestiges of optimism heading into the challenge against last year's All-Ireland Finalists and Ulster Championship favourites.

"There's no reason why any of our players would not love to play in front of nine or 10 thousand people against Tyrone.

"It would be nice to go out and compete first and foremost and put in a very good performance and see where that would take us - either in the first round of the Ulster Championship or if it has to be through the back door."

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Lost to a generation - it's time to restore Casement Park

Harbinson's frustration over Casement project

With Antrim having been first out of the hat when the quarter-final was drawn last October, the Saffrons should be at home on Saturday but that brings us on to the vexed and sad case that is Casement Park.

As planning delays mean that there is still no indication when or indeed, if work will begin in the stalled redevelopment of the west Belfast stadium, Harbinson could only expound on his frustration at the county's homelessness.

"Not having Casement Park is very frustrating on a number of levels. Just from the basic of having a home pitch, home venue and a home support.

"Even from a practical point of view having your own changing room, in the modern game there is a lot of analytical information that you want to try and get across to the players before the match and at half-time.

"So having the basics such as large screens and going through statistical visual analysis and not having your home venue most certainly takes away from what you can do.

"It's been stalled for the best part of six years now, and something needs to happen in terms of moving that project on - not just for Antrim but it's going to be an iconic stadium and anyone in Ulster would love to play a semi-final or final in that stadium."

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