OVER one hundred goals, promotion back to the Premier League and runners-up in two competitions; yet it ended as a season of disappointment for Ballymena United.
This season was literally 'make or break' for Ballymena United as with the restructuring of the Irish League to incorporate 16 teams in the top division meant that the top four in the first division would gain promotion, with the remaining four losing their top senior status. Such an event would have been unthinkable for the football club and financial ruin would ultimately follow.
Budget constraints restricted Shiels to again having to look to the lower leagues for new players as he brought the Kearney brothers Oran and Gareth from Moyola Park and Ballymoney United respectively. Shiels also added players with top-flight experience in the form of Joe Gray (Coleraine), Paul Evans (Newry), Paul Millar (Ards), Trevor McMullan (Newry), David Henry (on loan from Distillery) and Irish League veteran Alfie Stewart was appointed club captain after joining from Shiels' former club, Moyola Park.
With a much more experienced side than the season past, the Sky Blues were odds on favourites for the First Division title. Shiels had also maintained the majority of his first team losing only Kieran Loughran to Coleraine and Darren Crawford and Lee Patrick both to Ballymoney United.
Adding to supporters' optimism ahead of the new season, work was finally completed on the new 2,000 seated grandstand at the Warden Street venue. The top-class facilities would make the Showgrounds one of the leading stadiums in the Irish League and was used for the first time as the Sky Blues started their Ulster Cup campaign at home to Carrick Rangers in a tame 1-1 draw.
The Ulster Cup returned to the Irish League scene for a one-off season as a prelude to the league campaign, but was confined to only the teams in the First Division. However despite the opening day blues, the Braidmen kick started their season with a series of impressive results including a 6-0 win over Ballyclare, 5-1 win over Bangor and a 4-1 win over Armagh City; this was coupled with another 5-1 victory over Premier League side Institute in the opening game of the League Cup group. Shea Campbell who was going to be at the centre of headlines all season had scored nine goals in eight games by this stage, with two hat-tricks.
September seen the official opening of the new stand and Sam Allardyce brought over English Premier League side, Bolton Wanderers, to take part in a glamour friendly which seen the town of Ballymena come out in force with over 4,000 people cramming into the Showgrounds. However, despite a strongly spirited 2-0 defeat to the Lancashire side - it proved to be a memorable night for football in the town added to the lucrative arrangement agreed between the youth academies at both clubs before the match.
Back to the domestic matters, Ballymena lost the Ulster Cup on the final day to Dungannon Swifts after a disappointing defeat to Limavady United. However, all was forgiven two nights later when the Sky Blues secured an impressive 3-1 win over rivals Coleraine in the League Cup with goals from Oran Kearney, Trevor McMullan and Peter Withnell. This was to mark the beginning of a 13-game unbeaten streak in which Ballymena would clock up an unbelievable 49 goals!
The all-important League campaign began with a draw to Armagh City, but was followed by five consecutive wins which would send the Braidmen to the top of the league. The most impressive of these was arguably coming from 2-1 down at home to Larne in stunning fashion as Shea Campbell struck a spectacular scissor kick from the edge of the box late in the game to secure a 3-2 win.
Confidence in the league was transferred to the cup competitions as United finished top of their League Cup group and also hit a record 8-0 scoreline past Ballymoney United in the opening round of the County Antrim Shield. Crusaders were dispatched in the quarter-final of the League Cup, making them the third top-flight team to be beaten by Shiels' high-flying Ballymena already; that win set up a mouth watering semi-final against Glentoran at the Oval. It failed to disappoint as Ballymena gave the Premier League leaders an almighty scare coming from 3-1 down to draw level at 3-3 before two controversial late goals broke United hearts to finish the game 5-3 in favour of the Belfast Glens, in what was one of the games of the season.
By Decemember a resounding 5-2 win over second placed Dungannon Swifts saw United open up an eight point gap at the top of the table, but a disastrous holiday period saw United's 12-game unbeaten league run come to an end with defeat at home to Bangor, this was followed with another home defeat this time to Limavady United on Boxing Day.
At the turn of the year all media was surrounding the future of Ballymena's prolific young striker Shea Campbell, who had already hit the back of the net 25 times and was coming out of contract at the end of January. Campbell had a weeklong trial with Iain Dowie's Oldham Athletic and with strong interest from a host of Irish League clubs, he had seemingly signed off his United career in fitting style in what was seen to be his last appearance in a Sky Blue shirt. The Armagh based striker popped up with a dramatic late equaliser in the Irish Cup fifth round clash against reigning champions, Portadown, at Shamrock Park to force the game to a replay. A few days later he pledged his future to the club with a two year contract extension ahead of the replay with the Ports which drew out one of the largest attendances in years at the Showgrounds, however the Braidmen went down six goals without reply against a rampant Portadown side.
Despite the team's somewhat erratic league form, Shiels guided his side to the final of the County Antrim Shield after getting by Lisburn Distillery in the quarter-finals and Chimney Corner in the semi. A huge travelling support made their way to the Oval to try and stop Roy Coyle's Glentoran in their relentless pursuit of the 'Clean Sweep' of available trophies. However, despite a creditable effort - the quality of the East Belfast Glens shone through as they ran out 3-0 winners, with Ballymena still looking for their first County Antrim Shield win since 1980.
Promotion was assured later in March, after a professional 2-0 win over second placed Dungannon Swifts with goals from Shea Campbell and Oran Kearney, who had enjoyed a very impressive first season in senior football. This win also gave the Sky Blues the upper hand in the title race with only five games to go.
Two weeks later though it was a completely different story as United faced the Swifts again, this time at Stangmore Park. With Ballymena 2-1 ahead in the game, the normally reliable Peter Withnell stepped up to take a penalty against a 10-man Dungannon team with no proper goalkeeper - penalty that would almost guarantee Ballymena the league title. Stand-in goalkeeper Johnny Montgomery saved the spot-kick and that spurred the home side onto an unlikely 3-2 win and throwing the First Division title race wide open again.
With confidence visibly shattered, Shiels' men picked up only a point from their remaining three fixtures and virtually handed the championship to the County Tyrone side; as a season that had promised so much eventually ended with nothing.
Despite the disappointment, Premier League football was secured and striker Shea Campbell picked up nearly every award available within the First Division after finishing the campaign with a remarkable 38 goals. His form was rewarded with a call up to the Northern Ireland Under-21 squad and became only the second Ballymena United player to be capped at this level when he came on in a European Qualifier against Spain.
Season Review by Neil Coleman