RELEGATION became a reality at the Showgrounds this season as the Sky Blues cruelly yet somewhat deservedly went down to the First Division on the final day of the season.
Despite not learning their lesson from the last-day dramatics at Shamrock Park which secured Premier League football for another season at least, the flow of players was only one way for Nigel Best's United - and that was through the exit door. Club captain John McDonnell along with influential midfielder Phillip Knell both joined former manager Alan Fraser at First Division Bangor.
The club had already not offered new terms to Gareth Fulton, Raymond McGuinness, Darren Parker and Andrew Swalwell whilst veteran goalkeeper Dermot O'Neill retired from football. Long-serving striker Barry Patton was also sold to Omagh Town against his will, in another cost-cutting exercise; he was replaced by untested striker Michael Dillon from Intermediate side, Drummond United - Best's only summer signing.
With the Braidmen now relying on youth and a number of local players and many local pundits tipping the Sky Blues for the drop - they stunned everyone with a highly impressive start to the season and climbed to second place in the table after some fine results. An opening day draw with Cliftonville was followed by a dramatic late draw at the Oval; Ballymena then travelled to the Ballycastle Road where the impressive duo of Scott Drummond and Michael Dillon tore title-chasing Coleraine to shreds and a Drummond brace sealed a 2-0 victory.
One of the defining moments of the season came early on in the campaign when newly appointed club captain and talisman Glenn Hunter announced in August that he would be taking leave from football for 5 months whilst he trained to become a firefighter, in what was a massive blow for United's survival hopes. Best brought in two midfielders in the shape of former Peterbrough youngster Gerard Lyttle and Blair Scoullar from New Zealand.
Unsurprisingly, United failed to maintain their early season promise as a sucession of League defeats coupled with a first round exit in the Gold Cup to First Division minnows Dungannon Swifts was highly disconcerting for many Ballymena supporters - as manager Nigel Best was starting to feel the pressure of the United hotseat. This hadn't been helped by a very defensive brand of football during his 18-months at the Showgrounds.
A succession of heavy league defeats to Omagh Town (4-0), Linfield (5-1) and finally Newry Town (5-2) was the final nail in Best's coffin as United manager, as after the Newry game he was sacked by the United board with chairman Robert Cupples claiming the club needed a 'fresh start'. Bizarrely club physiotherapist George Magill was put in temporary charge during December, with sidelined striker Glenn Hunter as his assistant.
Despite the upheaval at Warden Street, results slowly improved under Magill as despite an expected County Antrim Shield exit to Linfield at the quarter-final stage, Ballymena picked up a hard fought point against Portadown and a win against Cliftonville to keep them hovering precariously above bottom place in the table. A second Kiwi joined the club as well in the form of Aaron Burgess, who like his fellow countryman, Scoullar, signed until the end of the season.
A poor festive period seen consecutive defeats to Glentoran, Coleraine and Glenavon before the club finally appointed a new manager just after the turn of the year. The latest occupant of the Showgrounds hotseat was former Coleraine manager Kenny Shiels, an appointment which divided opinions across the United support - but was given full backing by the club. Shiels was given a hero's welcome in his first game against Omagh Town at home as his new side produced an impressive 2-1 victory - which seemingly restored all hope that survival was now possible.
A last minute Barry Tumilty equaliser at Windsor Park saw United take an unlikely point from runaway leaders, Linfield and Glenn Hunter also returned to see United through to the next round of the Irish Cup with two goals against junior side Lurgan Celtic. However the optimism failed to last as Ballymena started on a nine game winless streak which seen them plummet to the bottom of the Irish League table.
Shiels attempted to shape his own team early on, bringing former Portadown goalkeeper Tim Dalton on board along with versatile full-back Shea Campbell from Dungannon Swifts. The Maghera-based boss also stamped his authority by getting rid of a number of Best's flops in February including the New Zealand duo, Ricky Culbertson, Terry Tennyson and surprisingly leading goalscorer Scott Drummond. In came Linfield teenager David McAlinden and a trio of Southerners; Glen Brien (Bray Wanderers), John O'Loughlin (Limavady) and Brian Morrisroe (Dundalk).
Exits in the Irish Cup to Glenavon and also in the League Cup at home to First Division leaders Ards left Ballymena with only top-flight survival to focus on. Somewhat bizarrely the outbreak of BSE (a strain of disease found in cattle) iin the province postponed all sporting activity allowing Shiels' men to regroup for the final run-in, however it was now highly unlikely the Braidmen could save themselves now.
However with five games remaining, they made a valiant attempt at staying up. Valiant victories over Glenavon, Omagh Town and Newry Town along with a home draw against Linfield, which delayed their Gibson Cup triumph to the weekend at least, meant that Ballymena United would go into the final game of the season against Portadown needing a win and a Crusaders defeat to stay in the Premier League.
Despite Crusaders losing, Ballymena could only manage a 3-3 draw against Ronnie McFall's Portadown side on a day of high emotion as time just simply ran out for Ballymena United, as they were condemned to life in the First Division after four seasons in the top-flight. A lack of goals and also experience cost United over the course of the season as Scott Drummond finished as leading goalscorer with eight goals, despite joining Larne in February!
On a more positive note, work had began on a new 2,000 seated grandstand at the Showgrounds - the first phase of a new council-based plan which would eventually turn the Warden Street complex into one of the best venues in the Irish League.
Season Review by Neil Coleman