David Jeffrey ready for top-four tests
Danske Bank Premiership: Crusaders v Ballymena United (tonight, Seaview, 7.45pm)
BALLYMENA United manager David Jeffrey has watched some fantastic teams come and go in his time in the Irish League, but he is struggling to remember a season when there was such a large sample of top class sides competing around the top of the table.
The Sky Blues took a big step forward last weekend as a 3-1 win over Carrick Rangers saw them leapfrog Glentoran into the top six.
Now when Jeffrey looks up the table all he can see is real quality and United will be reminded of that more than most in the coming weeks.
A frightening run of fixtures starts with a visit to Seaview tonight to face Crusaders before they travel to league leaders Coleraine on St Stephen's Day.
A home match with Glenavon four days later and a trip to Solitude to meet Cliftonville on January 2 rounds off their festive schedule.
“Before there were always two or three teams that really stood out,” said Jeffrey.
“This year the top five is just dripping with quality though.
“To me it would probably be one of the most competitive years in a long time.
“Some of them have played in stages and the only team who has shown true consistency has been Coleraine.
“There was a degree of inconsistency with Crusaders at the start of the season, the same with Cliftonville.
“Linfield and Glenavon had had little patches when results haven't gone their way.
“What has been most impressive is how these teams have responded, how they have recovered.”
Jeffrey's first match in charge of United was at Seaview in March last year when he secured an impressive point to end a run of five straight defeats.
Since then he has won two and lost three against Stephen Baxter's side, and he knows that they will need to be at their best to even up the score.
“We're facing a mammoth task,” he said of tonight's fixture.
“Crusaders have come into a fantastic run of form culminating in a most impressive away victory at Glenavon.
“While 4-3 would maybe suggest that it was a pretty tight affair, in preparation for every game we always have our opponents watched and the report back was that Crusaders were most impressive for the vast majority of the match.
“If they're putting four past Glenavon away from home then we realise the size of the task.”
Ballymena too can boast an impressive run of the form having lost just once in their last seven league matches with four wins in their last five shooting them right up the table.
Jeffrey said that there is a confidence amongst his players currently and he is hoping they can carry it into this daunting run of games.
“We had a dreadful start to the season in regards injuries.
“To say we were crippled was an understatement and we still have six or seven of our players out with long-term injuries.
“Great credit to the group, they have stuck to their task and have given it as good of a shot as they could have.
“We've had one defeat out of 10 (in all competitions) and that was away to Cliftonville. That was a game, I think by everybody's admission, when we should have had at least had a point.
“That's not a bad return but we're now preparing for a totally different challenge, we're getting ready for the big boys.”
In tonight's other match, league leaders Coleraine will make the long trip to Milltown to face Warrenpoint Town (7.45pm).
Oran Kearney's men continue to set a ferocious pace at the top of the table having dropped just nine points from a possible 60 this season.
The hosts have endured some frustrating results as of late with valuable points slipping away late on, but they will be buoyed by last weekend's fantastic 3-3 draw with Linfield at Windsor Park.
Once again it looked like they would be battling losers as Stephen Fallon put the Blues ahead with five minutes remaining, but Martin Murray scored a late penalty to secure a share of the spoils.