Ballymena and Glenavon will both turn the corner soon, warns Andy McGrory
Ballymena United ace Andy McGrory will be reunited with old friends tomorrow night but he knows Glenavon won't be handing out any festive gifts.
The versatile Lisburn man, who turned 28 on Sunday, savoured a perfect weekend when he slotted home a game winning penalty to see off a spirited Dungannon Swifts challenge.
And the 3-2 triumph saw the Braidmen record consecutive league wins - a welcome boost going into the busy Christmas period, particularly as the first half of the season has been badly disrupted by a horrendous injury count.
But it hasn't been pain sailing for McGrory's old pals at Glenavon either as the Lurgan Blues lie in eighth spot, on the same number of points as David Jeffrey's seventh-placed outfit.
It looks like the Irish Cup is now a more realistic route to Europe for the two sides after inconsistent campaigns.
United finished Premiership runners-up last season, but it's perhaps more surprising how Gary Hamilton's troops have been unable to hit the ground running.
The Mourneview men have, however, also won two league games on the spin and will arrive at the Showgrounds with renewed confidence and belief.
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McGrory, who made more than 200 appearances for the Lurgan Blues, is confident both teams can turn the corner and smash their way into the top six.
"I'm quite surprised Glenavon have had a sticky period but I've no doubt Gary Hamilton and the team will fight their way through it," said McGrory, who also played under David Jeffrey at Linfield.
"He will have his players fired up on Friday night and they'll be confident after a good win at Institute which is not an easy place to go to and they won convincingly. I've no doubt they will fight their way out of their difficult period and I believe we can do the same.
"We had around 12 players out injured and we are slowly getting them back. You take 12 players out of any squad and you will struggle. David has brought in good players to cope with that but, for the first time this season, we have had the same side for two games in a row.
"There will be changes to the team over the Christmas period but hopefully we can put a good run together."
United's runner-up finish last season inevitably raised expectation levels but when you have bigger squads and bigger budgets fighting for the premier prizes, keeping pace is not a simple mission.
"Last season was always going to be a tough act to follow and it was inevitable that fans' expectations would rise," admitted McGrory, who was at Glenavon for more than six years.
"I had never finished as high as that in the league and it was a strange situation for some of our boys.
"Teams also raised their game against Glenavon when they were doing well and that's what happens but we just want to turn the corner and pick up as many points as we can.
"All we can do now is roll up our sleeves and try to put a run together over the Christmas period to get back on track.
"We have won two in a row and want to keep going. Our main aim is to get back into the top six and we also have the County Antrim Shield final to look forward to. I've never won that and it's something you want to achieve and have on your CV."
The Christmas period is a busy and demanding time for Irish League players when families are reuniting, but McGrory wouldn't have it any other way.
"Players make sacrifices over the festive period and it's tough but I love it," he added.
"It brings your families together as well, they are off work and can come to games. For me, Christmas time is the best time for football."