AFTER nearly seventy years of trying Ballymena United supporters finally got to celebrate a League Championship as Alan Fraser's side romped home to the First Division title in 1997.
After the disappointing first season in the newly established First Division during the previous campaign, promotion to the top-flight was a virtual necessity for the club. The Sky Blues also started in the rather unusual position of being favourites for the Championship in the eyes of the bookmakers.
It was a summer of change at the Braid as a large number of players headed out the exit door; the mainland trio of Phil Burn, Mark McWalter and Ally Mauchlen all returned to Scotland and England respectively. Second-choice goalkeeper Dean Smyth left for Cliftonville for £3,000, while a number of United Reserves' Steel & Son Cup winning side also made way; James Steele (Glebe Rangers), Neill Fullerton (Larne) and Keith Wylie (Linfield) departed.
Midfielders Fintan McConville and Lindsay Curry started the season on the transfer-list and were soon gone whilst long-serving defender John Heron joined Distillery for £3,000 after spending the previous season in exile under Fraser. In more positive news Dessie Loughery signed a new one-year contract at Warden Street with the agreement of a testimonial game at the end of the season. Manager Alan Fraser began rebuilding his squad with a number of astute signings with veteran midfielder Ian Bustard joining from Ards, Dubliner John Smyth from Glenavon and former Cliftonville striker Ciaran Feehan.
In the boardroom Edwin McLaughlin took over the position as Chairman and was quick to speak out about the lack of financial support coming from the Ballymena United Social Club. John Murray and Derek Allen joined the board of directors whilst Maurice Millar and Jimmy Gray were given life memberships at the club.
Despite a faultless pre-season campaign; United started their season in embarrassing style - losing to 'B' division side Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore Park in the first round of the League Cup, despite having beaten then same side by five goals only a week before in a pre-season warm-up. United exited the Ulster Cup at the same stage soon after, but earned a bit more respect after pushing Premier League challengers Crusaders close in a two legged affair.
In early September, the Sky Blues chalked up their first win of the season in the Gold Cup against Larne and followed it up with an impressive 3-0 victory over Ards at the Showgrounds to secure a quarter-final place against Portadown with a game to spare. United went on to cause a major shock by beating the reigning League champions on penalties to setup a Gold Cup semi-final with Linfield, which proved one step too far for the new-look Ballymena side.
An excellent start to the League campaign seen the Braidmen win seven of their opening eight games and soar to the top of the table, a place in which United would remain for the whole duration of the year. Winger Loughery, in his testimonial year, was winning the plaudits as he picked up two Guinness Player of the Month awards for both September and November whilst United also won the 'Team of the Month' award for both November and December.
Ballymena United entered the Irish News Cup for the first time this season, an All-Ireland competition for teams in the North West of Ireland paired the Warden Street side with Sligo Rovers - the first time United had faced a League of Ireland side competitively since the ill-fated Tyler Cup in 1980. A narrow 1-0 defeat in Sligo was coupled with a disappointing 4-2 reverse back at home ensured an early exit on aggregate for Alan Fraser's side.
By the New Year the Sky Blues had extended their impressive league run to 12 wins from 14, with their only two defeats to Distillery meaning they had already built up an extensive lead over nearest challengers Bangor and Omagh Town. Fraser also recruited the services of Philip Knell from Linfield for £6,000 as well as John McDowell (Larne) and Colin Telford (Glentoran) to aid the promotion push.
Given the club's great form it was a surprising early exit from the Irish Cup in January as United lost 3-0 at Bangor in the Fifth Round and also exited the Coca-Cola Floodlit Cup early on, losing to Glenavon penalties in the first round.
However, progress in the County Antrim Shield proved a bit more successful as after victories over Carrick Rangers and Chimney Corner in the first two rounds, a semi-final with Portadown at the Oval provided another high-point in a memorable season as Ciaran Feehan's 'golden goal' in extra time gave Ballymena a place in the final against Cliftonville. Controversy reigned at the final though as the match was abandoned after referee Alan Snoddy was struck by a bottle from the Cliftonville supporters at Windsor Park, forcing the game to be replayed. Unfortunately, despite having the advantage in the first game United cruelly lost the replayed final on penalties to Marty Quinn's North Belfast Reds.
Inevitably the First Division title was wrapped up in March at New Grosvenor Park as Ciaran Feehan's goal against Distillery clinched Ballymena United's first League Championship and promotion to the Premier Division for the first time. The celebrations lasted all the way from the weekend until the following Tuesday as captain John McConnell got his hands on the trophy at the Showgrounds following the homecoming victory over Newry Town.
With the Premier League being increased to 10 teams for the 1997/1998 season, Omagh Town followed Ballymena United into the top division after finishing second. The season ended with Ciaran Feehan and Des Loughery finishing joint top goalscorers at the club with 16 goals apiece while Mark Carlisle was chosen as the Player of the Year, after having previously been out of favour under Tommy Jackson just two years previously.
The season finished with Loughery's testimonial against derby rivals Coleraine at Warden Street which Peter Murray starred in, grabbing a hat-trick in a 5-1 victory. As the season ended in celebration there was little time to dwell on their successes as tougher tasks lay in wait the following season back with the 'big boys'.
Season Review by Neil Coleman