Injury-hit Ballymena United face an 'Ard battle to reach Shield final, says Jeffrey
Ballymena Utd v Ards, Toals County Antrim Shield Semi-Final, The Showgrounds, Tonight, 7.45pm
David Jeffrey admits Ballymena United's walking wounded will have a tough task on their hands to see off Ards this evening.
Less than a fortnight on from edging past Colin Nixon's men on League Cup duty, the Sky Blues welcome Ards back to The Showgrounds for a Toals County Antrim Shield semi-final clash that home boss Jeffrey admits will stretch his injury-ravaged squad to the limit.
Already minus a host of established names for Saturday's narrow defeat to Cliftonville, Ballymena added Gary Thompson to their casualty list at Solitude, leaving their manager facing a selection quandary tonight.
"The truth of it is we had 16 fit players at the weekend," he explained. "We're down to the bare bones and Gary's injury has added to that. He won't be in any state to play against Ards.
"It's a headache but we just have to get on with it. It's not an excuse in any way, shape or form but we're missing an awful lot of players and we will be pushed all the way by Ards, who are coming off the back of a phenomenal result against Glentoran on Saturday."
Thompson - forced off with eight minutes remaining against the Reds - joins defenders Andrew Burns, Johnny Flynn and Caolan Loughran on the sidelines, along with midfielders Eoin Kane, Stephen McAlorum and Leroy Millar as well as key creative influence Kevin Braniff.
"I'm not really sure how we're going to line up, we'll just have to wait and see who we have," added Jeffrey with a rueful grin.
"All teams get injuries and all managers have to deal with them but it's tough when you get so many at the same time as we have done."
Less than two months have passed since the United boss questioned the mentality of players whom he suggested may have been living off last season's glories and failing to build on League Cup success and European qualification.
Since then, however, he has been delighted with the upturn in form of a side whose weekend loss was their first in seven outings, adding: "I must say how proud I have been of how we have been performing lately.
"A while ago we spoke about where we were heading and how we were going to get there and whether some of the players on the journey with us at the minute would still be here when we reached our destination.
"It seems to me like the penny has dropped within the dressing room and we've seen a vast improvement, not just in results but in how we've been playing too."
Clashes between the Sky Blues and Ards are notoriously high-scoring - the last six have delivered no fewer than 36 goals - and Jeffrey expects a typically competitive encounter in the battle for a Shield final berth.
"These are always very, very tight matches," he said.
"We saw just the other week, when we needed extra-time to beat them, exactly how tough an opponent Ards are.
"They've just gone to The Oval and beaten Glentoran, while they put Linfield out at Windsor Park to reach this stage of the competition. Those results speak for themselves, so we will be ready for a very serious battle against a team who have proven themselves very capable throughout the season."