THE GREAT escape wouldn't even come close to what Nigel Best and his Ballymena United side achieved in the 1999/2000 season, as they avoided relegation on the final day of the season.
United's board members had moved quickly to replace the sacked Alan Fraser in May 1999; as former Glenavon manager Nigel Best took over at the Warden Street despite competition from Stephen McBride for the position. The 49-year-old school teacher appointed Kieran Harding as his assistant with former player Joe McCall as Reserve team manager; replacing the long serving Shay Hamill.
Best sought quickly to stamp his authority on his new team after the departures of PJ O'Connell, Keith Percy (both released), Ian Bustard (Carrick Rangers), Jason Stevenson (Larne), Robbie Beck (retired) and long serving Dessie Loughery who made a controversial move to rivals Coleraine.
39-year-old Dubliner, Dermot O'Neill, was brought into provide talented goalkeeper Richard McKinney with competition for the number one jersey. North West based-players Ollie Mullan (Portstewart) and John Gregg (Coleraine) where amongst the first of Best's signings and were soon followed by Barry Tumilty (Newry Town) and Gareth Fulton (Portadown).
Pre-season started badly for Best as defeats to Larne and Carrick Rangers didn't sit well with United supporters, before a very bad-tempered encounter with neighbours Wakehurst soured relationships between the two sides.
The start to the domestic season wasn't much better as the Sky Blues started their campaign with four consecutive draws and failed to win any of their opening ten Premier League games and found themselves almost instantly struggling at the bottom of the league table.
Richard McKinney had made move to English side Manchester City on the eve of the season in a £15,000 move which could rise to £25,000. Best brought in a number of players to try and revive the club's fortunes; Ricky Culberton (on loan from Swindon Town), Ray McGuinness (Limavady United), Andrew Swalwell (Middlesbrough) and Gerry Flynn (Cliftonville) formed the basis of Nigel Best's new look side.
Ballymena's first win of the season came against Crusaders in the Gold Cup in October and soon followed that up with back-to-back League victories over the recently renamed Lisburn Distillery and Cliftonville. However this new found confidence didn't last as they went a further 12 games without a win stretching into the new millenium - having drawn 13 of their first 21 league games!
The pressure was already starting to grow on Nigel Best who released two of his more established players in Declan McGreevy (Ballyclare Comrades) and Paul Muir (Crusaders). However the welcome return of Nigel Boyd boosted the club, after Boyd had seemingly looked set to join Linfield in the summer.
In November, Ballymena United along with the Borough Council released ambitious plans to redevelop the Showgrounds into one of the top sporting venues in the Province. There was also a change at the top of the United hierarchy as Norman McBurney replaced the outgoing Edwin McLaughlin as chairman of the football club.
The draw-specialists went into the new year and new millenium on the back off four straight stalemates but lost their first game of 2000 to Linfield at Windsor Park. They did pick up their first win though against Best's former side, Glenavon, with Englishman Andrew Swalwell and Glenn Hunter getting the goals in an impressive 2-0 win.
Best's side looked with more optimism to the Irish Cup as a chance to go one step further than last year's semi-final debacle. Early round victories over juniors Loughgall and Bessbrook United provided a easy passage to a quarter-final with high-flying Coleraine. However, a disappointing 1-0 defeat the Ballycastle Road denied the Sky Blues of another semi-final appearance.
This ended Ballymena's poor record in the cup competitions this season as first round exits in both the County Antrim Shield and the League Cup to Bangor and Portadown, respectively, provided another trophyless year in Mid-Antrim. Interest in the Nationwide Gold Cup had also been cut abruptly short at the quarter-final stage by Linfield.
With Premier League survival now the sole focus, the goals of Glenn Hunter would be literally the only thing that could save United as the talisman scored 23 of the team's 54 goals during the 1999/2000 campaign and almost single handedly kept the Braidmen in the top-flight. Rooted to the bottom of the table going into the final month; pricless wins over both Distillery and Glentoran gave Nigel Best's side a fighting chance of survival despite still being rooted to the bottom of the table in tenth position.
However, a truly remarkable final day which saw Lisburn Distillery, Cliftonville and United fight it out at the bottom of the table culumated in Ballymena United jumping two placed to automatic safety after a 2-0 win over Portadown and other results going in favour of the Braidmen.
Season Review by Neil Coleman