Barry Gray sees opportunity knocking with Cliftonville's festive fixtures
Danske Bank Premiership: Cliftonville v Glenavon (today, Solitude, 3pm)
CLIFTONVILLE manager Barry Gray insists his players should view their daunting run of games over the Christmas period as opportunity rather than threat.
The Reds, who are on a run of six Danske Bank Premiership wins in-a-row, face third-placed Glenavon at Solitude this afternoon, before taking on the quartet of Glentoran, champions Linfield, fierce rivals Crusaders and league leaders Coleraine between now and the turn of the year.
Win today and Cliftonville could leap frog Glenavon into third in the table, and perhaps even Crusaders into second, depending on results elsewhere. Lose, however, and they could be demoted to fifth by Linfield.
This is how tight the margins are at the top of the Irish League this season, but former Warrenpoint Town boss Gray is taking the pressure in his stride.
“I don’t think it’s make or break. I don’t think any individual game will be make or break,” said Gray of Cliftonville’s Christmas run.
“Don’t get me wrong, if we got to the end of those five or six games and we’d no points on the board, then it would be a disaster. Everyone from outside keeps building this period up as if it’s the first time that a Cliftonville team has ever played them.
“I don’t see it like that, I see it as an opportunity, I said that to the players, ‘if you want to call it the big games, they’re top half teams and no more than that. Teams that we’ve already competed tightly with this year or beat this year’. It’s when you look at them fixtures like a run like that, if you’re one of the bottom half teams, then you panic because it’s a mountain but, I keep saying to our players, you are one of them teams so it’s not the same mountain as it is for other clubs.
“It’s a case of, they should be looking at our fixtures and saying, ‘f**k, this is a bad time to get Cliftonville because they’re on top of their game at the minute’.”
That Cliftonville have turned the corner from a rocky start to Gray’s reign in August and September is in little doubt. Since the Reds lost to table topping Coleraine on October 21, their league record reads played six, won six, with 17 goals scored and just the one against.
That record of five clean sheets in six is particularly notable, given the rate at which the Reds were shipping goals earlier in the season.
Gray believes this upturn in defensive solidity is a result of the players getting used to the demands he makes of them: “It was like everything in the early stages of the season, there was a lot of newness,” he added.
“What had to be done was for me to transfer my thoughts over to the players. I think the defence has been fairly settled the last couple of months, there’s been very little change in personnel and I think that’s helped massively.
“Obviously, Bam [Brian Neeson] coming into the goals has been a big plus for us. But I think, just generally, the understanding of what’s expected of us, not just the back four but the defensive unit in total, we’re better placed now to understand what we need to do in them games.”
While Gray is adamant Cliftonville will have to take their game to another level again today to get maximum points against the Lurgan Blues, he thinks there may be more of an opportunity for the Reds to express themselves against a side of similar quality.
“The game we’ve dished out in the last number of weeks probably won’t be enough, so we’ve got to take another step up in terms of what we can do,” the Cliftonville boss said.
“I think we can do that. People have been saying to me over the last couple of weeks, ‘youse only won 1-0 or 3-1’ or whatever and I’m thinking, sometimes when you come to these bigger games, it’s easier for us to play, get that wee bit of extra space and time that you maybe won’t get against the bottom six teams.
“We’re hoping on Saturday it goes that way and we’re hoping we can maybe bring some of our flair players more into the game, which will help us hopefully have that edge.”
(All games 3pm)
Ards v Ballymena United
BALLYMENA have their eyes on squeezing into the top six, while those of Ards are fixed firmly in the other direction.
Ards are three points above Carrick Rangers, who sit in the relegation play-off spot with a game in hand, and they will be hoping they don’t start the new year staring at the drop.
Odds: H: 9/5 D: 13/5 A: 11/10
Carrick Rangers v Linfield (today, 3pm)
CARRICK suffered a 3-1 home reverse to league leaders Coleraine last Saturday afternoon, and it doesn’t get any easier today when they host reigning champions Linfield.
David Healy’s side are breathing down the necks of the likes of Cliftonville and Crusaders after recent wins over Coleraine and Glenavon, and they will be expected to keep the pressure on today.
Odds: H: 17/1 D: 6/1 A: 1/10
Cliftonville v Glenavon (today, 3pm)
BARRY Gray’s side are aiming to make it seven wins from the last seven in the Danske Bank Premiership today, but Glenavon present a tough proposition.
Only two points separate these sides in third and fourth in the table, with Cliftonville eyeing up that third spot for themselves.
The Reds have been ruthless in recent weeks, conceding just a single goal since October 24.
Odds: H: 11/10 D: 13/5 A: 9/5
Coleraine v Dungannon Swifts (today, 3pm)
SO FAR, the wheels have refused to come off Coleraine’s unexpected title tilt.
Last week, they travelled to Carrick and picked up a comfortable three points, which leaves them six ahead of Crusaders and Glenavon, albeit with an extra game played.
Dungannon have made something of a habit out of their involvement in high-scoring games this season, winning three on a 4-0 scoreline and losing three by the same margin. Don’t rule out a few goals today.
Odds: H: 2/9 D: 7/2 A: 9/1
Glentoran v Ballinamallard United (today, 3pm)
GLENTORAN occupy something of a no man’s land in the Danske Bank Premiership at the minute, sitting 11 points behind Linfield in fifth, but also comfortably above any danger.
Warrenpoint, on the other hand, are in danger up to their necks, seven points adrift of safety and having taken only one point from the last possible 15.
Odds: H: 4/11 D: 10/3 A: 6/1
Warrenpoint v Crusaders (today, 3pm)
CRUSADERS are flying at present and they look a match for anyone in the league.
Victory over Glentoran last weekend continued their excellent run of form and they will be going all out to put the squeeze on leaders Coleraine this afternoon.
Warrenpoint suffered defeat at the hands of former manager Barry Gray’s Cliftonville last Saturday and they will be in for another tough afternoon with a north Belfast outfit today.
Odds: H: 12/1 D: 11/2 A: 1/8