IN BALLYMENA United's first season back in the top-flight of Northern Irish football they qualified for Europe, albeit through the proverbial 'back door'.
Having gained promotion back to the Premier League the previous season, manager Kenny Shiels moved quickly to add quality to his young squad. He brought in a trio of Linfield players; Garth Scates, Jamie Marks and Justin McBride and also astutely acquired Lancaster City defender, Ciaran Donaghy, formerly with Cliftonville and Crusaders.
Shiels managed to keep the majority of his squad together, however a number of the older statesmen moved onto pastures new. Fans favourite Peter Withnell joined Larne with Trevor McMullan moving to Armagh City. Club captain Alfie Stewart retired after a successful Irish League career and Paul Millar joined the coaching staff at Brantwood.
The pre-season trail began against English Premier League side Bolton Wanderers on a very humid July evening; however Garth Scates' stunning 35-yard debut strike was the only positive of a 7-1 masterclass from the Lancashire side. However, the Sky Blues faired a lot better in Mark Carlisle's (pictured right) Testimonial clash against Heart of Midlothian as the Braidmen produced a wonderful performance beating the Scots 2-1 at the Showgrounds with two goals from Shea Campbell, there was also a cameo appearance from Carlisle's former team-mate Dessie Loughery. Carlisle ended his 11-year association with United soon after, as he joined First Division side Armagh City in search of first-team football.
Domestic proceedings began with the CIS Insurance League Cup, as United were paired in a group with Portadown, Institute and Glenavon. It took only nine minutes for Oran Kearney to open the account for the season against Portadown, but eventually went down 3-1 to the Ports in what turned out to be a dismal League Cup campaign - an away win to Glenavon the only positive, as Ballymena finished bottom of their group and destroying any early season optimism that existed.
With the Premier League now increased to 16 teams Ballymena began their league campaign away to rivals Larne; as Oran Kearney scored twice to give United a winning start, however the team struggled over the next few weeks with Shiels needing a proven goalscorer after teenage striker Kevin Ramsey, signed from Glasgow Celtic, proved a major disappointment.
Ballymena made headlines with the audacious signing of former Nottingham Forest striker Nigel Jemson (pictured left). Jemson, along with Justin McBride, made their debuts in a draw with Crusaders and the Englishman came close to securing a famous victory over Glentoran a few days later, a game that also ended in stalemate. However, the form failed to improve as despite a County Antrim Shield victory over Dunmurry YM; defeats to Distillery, Limavady and Linfield seen the Braidsiders go seven league games without victory and pressure began to mount on manager, Shiels.
Under-fire United kick started their season the following week with a 4-0 victory over relegation candidates, Glenavon. Shiels' their next four games in succession to drag themselves out of trouble, cumulating with a fantastic 1-0 victory over title-chasing Portadown at Shamrock Park with Oran Kearney grabbing the winning goal for a very under-strength Ballymena side.
The eagerly anticipated Boxing Day derby returned after a two year absence, but ended in abject misery as Ballymena were hammered 4-0 by Marty Quinn's Bannsiders, with Sean Armstrong grabbing a hat-trick. A truly embarrassing festive period was saved in dramatic fashion as an overhead kick from outside the area from Jamie Marks in the last minute denied struggling Larne a win on New Years' Day at the Showgrounds.
For the second season in a row, the Irish Cup draw would see Ballymena travel to the reigning Irish League champions. Yet despite taking an early lead against Glentoran, it was another first hurdle exit for United at the Oval, losing 4-2. A much more promising chance at silverware was spurned two weeks later when Shiels' men lost to Ards in the semi-final of the County Antrim Shield at Seaview by a single goal, with Nigel Jemson sent off late in the game to compound Ballymena's misery.
Shiels decided to strengthen his defence in January by making the astute signing of former Wolves player Gordon Simms on loan from Derry City. The Larne-born defender fitted in perfectly and made an immediate impression scoring the winner against Limavady United in his second appearance and also produced an outstanding display against champions-elect Linfield, as Ballymena held the Belfast Blues to a 0-0 draw.
Ballymena United finished the Premier League campaign strongly, losing only one of their final ten games and finished a very creditable sixth in the table, having only just been promoted the previous year. The Sky Blues finished their season in style with a comfortable 3-1 over derby-rivals and Irish Cup finalists, Coleraine, at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
The season took another late twist as the IFA and UEFA had introduced a club licensing system earlier in the year, which meant that for any Irish League side to play in European competition they would need a license to do so. Ballymena United were only one of five teams to be granted a license and therefore earned the right to participate in the UEFA Intertoto Cup ahead of fourth placed Lisburn Distillery and fifth placed Coleraine - both of whom did not have the required license.
So Ballymena United had only a matter of weeks to prepare for the Intertoto Cup at the end of June, as they returned to European competition for the first time in 15 years. There was a belief that the Sky Blues were on the brink of a return to being a challenging force in the Irish League again.
Season Review by Neil Coleman