BALLYMENA United returned to the to Premier League with a bang but eventually ran out of steam before the end of the season.
Following their runaway First Division Championship victory the previous season and promotion back to the newly established Premier League for the first time, Alan Fraser managed to keep together the crux of his panel ahead of the new season with the only departures being joint-leading scorer Ciaran Feehan who emigrated to Australia and long serving local midfielder Jason Gilmore joined First Division, Larne.
Virtually all the first-team panel eventually re-signed new contracts as despite interest in a number of players including a strong interest in Crusaders' Glenn Hunter and press speculation over a move for Glenavon's prolific striker Glenn Ferguson but there were only two arrivals during the summer months with Southern-based striker PJ O'Connell signing from Bangor and a return to the Showgrounds to Neil Candlish from Portadown, the Scottish forward terrorised opposition defences during his first spell at the Braid at the start of the decade.
The season kicked off with the Wilkinson Sword League Cup and a comfortable victory over Dundela at Wilgar Park with Barry Patton grabbing a hat-trick in what was an early indication of the impact he was to make this season. Following a win against Newry Town on penalties in the next round, Fraser's men were unceremoniously dumped out at the quarter-final stage against Glenavon, losing 6-1 at Mourneview Park.
United had to wait until the end of August to play their first home game of the season, due to ongoing maintenance with the Showgrounds pitch. Fraser's men provided a memorable top-flight homecoming when they defeated rivals Coleraine thanks to a solitary Declan McGreevy strike.
Despite a great start to the League campaign which seen three wins from the first four games - the month of September was nothing short of a disaster with five defeats in a row (which included Larne and Ballyclare Comrades) and seven with a win - leaving the Sky Blues playing catch up in the Gibson Cup chase and also out of the Gold Cup at the group stage.
Ballymena soon hit form in the run up towards Christmas and produced some excellent performances with the results to back them up - wins over Coleraine, Cliftonville and Ards meant that Alan Fraser was named Football Writer's 'Manager of the Month' and also Ballymena were awarded 'Team of the Month' for October. A battling draw with Linfield and a merited win over Glentoran soon after had many thinking that the Sky Blues could possibly challenge for the league and end the town's seventy year wait for the Gibson Cup.
Two games in December sent the whole club into dreamland - firstly another comfortable win over Champions-to-be, Cliftonville (United's third win in three games against the Reds this season) set up an epic encounter against reigning League Champions Crusaders at Seaview. A stunning late volley from Neil Candlish sent Ballymena United to the top of the Premier League after their 4-3 win over Roy Walker's side. The following game on Boxing Day against rivals Coleraine drew an estimated crowd of 7,000 to Warden Street to see the league leaders.
Towards the end of the year speculation was growing regarding the future of star striker Barry Patton - who was being linked with a move to League of Ireland champions Derry City. The Lifford based striker had already plundered over 20 goals in the first half of the campaign and was coming out of contract - however much to the dismay of Felix Healy at Derry City, Patton signed a three-year deal with United but the goals soon dried up with only five more goals after New Year's Day.
With Patton's future secure, Ballymena burst the bank to find a high calibre strike partner to fire them to the Premier League title. A club record outgoing transfer fee of £20,000 was spent on Crusaders' Glenn Hunter who Fraser had been trailing for months previously - and was seen as the final piece of the puzzle. Although he started well by scoring a brace on his full debut against Coleraine, Hunter failed to settle into the team and the goals that many expected just never arrived.
The New Year saw any form the club had just collapse as they failed to win any of their League fixtures until the end of February and evidently slipped seamlessly out of the title race. The Irish Cup provided little satisfaction either following a first round exit to eventual winners, Glentoran, albeit after a replay.
Fortunately the other cup competitions brought some restbite from the faltering Premier League struggle, as Ballymena United reached the semi-finals of the Coca-Cola Floodlit Cup but narrowly lost to surprise League Champions Cliftonville at Windsor Park. The Braidmen went one better in the much maligned Irish News Cup as they reached the final after an impressive 11-2 aggregate victory over Kenny Shiels' Coleraine side but ended up losing the two legged final against unfancied Omagh Town by the odd goal.
Come the final day of the season Ballymena relegated Ards to the First Division, but eventually missed out on a top half finish by virtue of one goal - ending their first Premier League campaign in sixth place; disappointing for those that dared to dream when the newly promoted Sky Blues sat on top of the pile at Christmas.
Barry Patton finished the season as leading scorer with 26 goals and also picked up the Player of the Year award, but the season ended with manager Alan Fraser contemplating his position after United's capitulation only to be talked out of resigning by the Chairman, Edwin McLaughlin.
Season Review by Neil Coleman