IT was a season of major transition at the Showgrounds following relegation to the First Division, in which a sustained promotion push never realistically got off the ground.
The consequences of relegation the previous season sparked an exodus of first-team players from the Showgrounds with Gerry Flynn (Coleraine), Jason Allen (Crusaders), Barry Tumilty (Portadown) and Gerard Lyttle (Newry Town) all leaving. Only eight players with first-team experience reported back for pre-season training, amongst a host of new faces from the lower leagues.
Arrivals of virtual unknowns such as Mark McMenemy (Coagh United), Adam Hamilton (Crusaders), Daryl Moore (Dervock Swifts), Mark McNicholl and Trevor McLernon (both Moyola Park). Whilst Paul Byrne stepped down from his position as player-manager of Ballyclare Comrades to join the Sky Blues, however broke his arm during pre-season - delaying his competitive debut until November.
However, manager Kenny Shiels (right) did manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat with the suprise signing of former Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, Tommy Wright. Capped 31 times by his country, Wright returned to the Irish League after spending the last years of his career with Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City and outlined his desire to setup a goalkeeping coaching clinic at the Showgrounds.
Shiels' new look United side began their First Division campaign away to Carrick Rangers in front of a large travelling support. Optimism grew after a professional 2-0 win on the opening day, but that was soon diminished after United failed to win any of their following six games - including embarassing defeats to Limavady United and Institute.
This prompted the manager into changes in his team, which was to be the tone for the rest of the campaign as Shiels used no less than 40 players in competitive games. He brought in experienced striker Peter Withnell from Crusaders and also former Leeds United defender Paul Beesley to help his young team, however the latter only lasted a handful of games before returning back to England. The gamble on Tommy Wright (below) also failed to pay off as he was forced to retire with a chronic knee problem after only seven appearances.
The introduction of Withnell alongside a young Shea Campbell, who had been transformed from full-back to striker began to pay-off for the Sky Blues as they lost only one of their seven games in the months of October and November. Shiels also introduced Crusaders midfielder Lee Patrick into his midfield along with Tyrone GAA All-Star Stephen O'Neill - who didn't look out of place with the ball at his feet.
The restructured CIS Insurance League Cup, allowed the manager to bleed in some younger players in the four group games, which seen Ballymena lose heavily to rivals Coleraine, but also beat high-flying Omagh Town at the Showgrounds. Progression in the County Antrim Shield semi-finals was assured, albeit against two teams from County Down as Donard Hospital and Ards were comfortably beaten by Ballymena in the first two rounds.
It was another strange signing from Shiels that got the Irish League talking about the Sky Blues again, as he managed to bring Liberian international Leon Browne to the Showgrounds on a two-year contract. Despite his pace and skill, Browne struggled to adapt to the physical nature of the Irish League, but popped up with a late equaliser against promotion rivals Institute at Drumahoe in December; a game that also Ballymena United score twice in injury time only to see both goals ruled out.
The usual festive weather put caution to the holiday fixtures this season but United's threadbare squad which was now littered with teenagers was still producing the results, as they grinded out a superb last-minute victory over Limavady United and came from 3-1 down to draw 4-4 against neighbours, Larne.
However, arguably the best performance of the season was saved for the Irish Cup. Ballymena were drawn against tricky Premier League side Omagh Town, and after forcing a replay with a valiant scoreless draw at St. Julian's Road they brought Omagh back to the Warden Street Showgrounds. Despite playing 87 minutes of the replay with only ten men, the Sky Blues outfought their top-flight opponents to win 2-1 and progress to the Sixth Round of the Cup.
United's season fell to pieces though after this result, as they were unceremoniously dumped out of the County Antrim Shield by a rampant Linfield side at Seaview in the semi-finals and the following week an equally inexperienced team went out of the Irish Cup to Glenavon without much of a fight, leaving Kenny Shiels' side to fight it out for promotion in the final months of the season.
The month of March and some abysmal showings from a young United side, ended any lingering hopes of promotion back to the Premier League as defeats to promotion rivals Institute and Dungannon Swifts as well as failure to beat Limavady and Ballyclare left the Sky Blues mathematically out of the race come the end of the month. However many of the same youngsters also faced heartbreak as United's Youth team went out on penalties to Ballinamallard Thirds in the final of Harry Cavan IFA Youth Cup.
A morale boosting win against already promoted win against Institute at home in April restored some face, but failure to win any of the final three league games, saw Ballymena finish fifth in the league table on the final day as Larne jumped United on goal difference after a surprise 7-1 win over Limavady; this was the Braidmen's worst ever league finish in their history. The final game of the season saw defensive stalwart Mark Carlisle make a landmark 400th appearance in the 1-1 draw with Bangor at Clandeboye Park.
Peter Withnell finished top goalscorer at the club with 16 goals and was a unanmious choice for player of the year - but with the league being reduced to eight teams and failure to win promotion next season resulting in Intermediate football meant the pressure was already on for Shiels' side to perform in the next season.
Season Review by Neil Coleman