Cork manager Eamonn Ryan believes that securing a place in the semi-finals of the Tesco Homegrown Ladies National Football League would kickstart a stuttering season for the champions.

Cork have lost two of their opening four fixtures in Division 1 and are in danger of missing out on a top four-finish.

And the Rebelettes, who have suffered defeats against Monaghan and Kerry, travel to high-flying Dublin on Sunday knowing that another setback could see them drop out of the top four.

Ryan reflected: “The first aim is not to be relegated.

“I think we’re safe enough there.

“We have three games to go and if we play well in them we might qualify for a semi-final.

“If you qualify then for the semi-finals, you’re back in business again but if we don’t win on Sunday we could be struggling.”

All-Ireland champions Cork are without Deirdre O’Reilly and Aisling Barrett for the trip to the capital and doubts surround the intercounty future of Nollaig Cleary, holder of eight All-Ireland medals.

Cleary was married last December and Ryan admitted: “I don’t know if she’s definitely gone but she hasn’t come back yet.

“She hasn’t said she has retired and she didn’t come back last year until May so we don’t know. But the door is open for everyone.”

Ryan admits that he is attempting to manage a period of transition for Cork following the confirmed retirements of goalkeeper Elaine Harte and midfield powerhouse Juliet Murphy.

He said: “It’s getting harder every year. We’re a long time on the road. It’s harder to get going, we started a bit later this year than other years.

“We haven’t an awful lot done but gradually we’re getting people back into our system.

“It’s getting harder every year. We’re a long time on the road" - Eamonn Ryan

“There are a few new players and it’s taken a while to settle in. It must be pretty daunting to come into a squad with players who have been there and done that. It could have an inhibiting effect on new players as well.

“There’s a settling-in period this year more so than other years.

“It’s hard on a young player where there are very experienced players.

“No matter how accommodating the experienced players are, the young player feels a bit self-conscious and under pressure. It takes time for the old and the new to blend.”

Ryan, who has been at the helm since 2004, added: “When we started first, we had the same thing, two distinct groups – a group of older players who had been there for years with no success and a group of young ones coming in with success. People think sometimes that it happens seamlessly but it takes the players time to get to know each other.

“We’ve had four or five new players in and out but how many would actually be on the team, we don’t know.

“We’re just trying to give people a chance to feel at home and become acclimatised to the whole thing.”

Cork’s clash with Dublin is the first time that the city rivals have met in competitive fare since last August’s TG4 All-Ireland quarter-final.

On that occasion, Dublin led by nine points, 2-12 to 0-9, before Cork produced a quite remarkable performance that saw them land 1-10 without reply en route to a sensational four-point win.

Ryan recalls: “You weren’t so much thinking as hoping and praying that something would ignite – and it did. They went for broke – they just had a go for the last 20 minutes.

“I know they were nine points down but I don’t think that was a true reflection of the difference between the two teams.

“There was always a chance that if we could get a goal, that we’d be well back in the game.”

Victory for Dublin on Sunday would guarantee a top-four finish for the Sky Blues and Monaghan are in the same boat as they prepare to host Kerry.

Elsewhere in Division 1, Donegal are in desperate need of points as they prepare to welcome Mayo and Tyrone will make the trip to Laois.