A SEASON that promised so much ended up with so little, as United manager Kenny Shiels suffered for his team's disappointing end to the 2004/2005 campaign.
Not for many years had so much optimism filled the hopes of Ballymena United supporters. After an impressive sixth place finish in the club's first season back in the Premier League, the Sky Blues were back in Europe for the first time in 15 years - mainly down to Lisburn Distillery and Coleraine's failure to obtain a new UEFA Licence to compete in European competition.
Kenny Shiels made a number of big signings in a summer of high activity, firstly signing loanee defender Gordon Simms from Derry City and also pulling off a major coup in bringing Coleraine's prize asset Rory Hamill to the Braid (right). Former Glentoran captain Gary Smyth also arrived at the club, with expectation levels soaring through the roof with these 'big name' signings. Eddie Hill (Ballyclare) and William McFrederick (Fulham) also arrived ahead of the European trip.
There was some balancing of the books needed though as Nigel Jemson's contract wasn't renewed, whilst members of the First Division side were released having served their time including Paul Byrne (retired), Trevor McLernon (Armagh City), Kevin Duff (Bangor), John McDowell (Armagh City), Paul Evans (Newry City) and John O'Loughlin (Cliftonville).
There was little preparation time for the club as they drew Danish outfit Odense BK in the first round of the UEFA Intertoto Cup. Over 100 Ballymena United supporters travelled to Denmark for the first leg and in turn witnessed one of the greatest results in the club's history as they drew 0-0 in Odense. This was both United's first result away from home in European competition and also the first time the club played a game on a Sunday.
Supporters dared to dream of a surreal trip to Spanish giants Villarreal in the next round, but reality hit hard the following week when the Danes secured a comfortable 7-0 humilation of the Braidmen at the Showgrounds to send Kenny Shiels' side out of the Intertoto Cup. However, Shiels also had one more big name signing up his sleeve with Tim McCann joining from Glentoran as it was starting to look like the Braidmen might mount a serious challenge on silverware this season.
An opening day draw to Lisburn Distillery in the group stages of the CIS Insurance League Cup was followed by a suprise 3-1 defeat to relegation-favourites Larne at home. Shiels' side recovered in the remaining games though to finish second in the group and gain qualification to the quarter-finals of the competition.
Ballymena travelled to Lakeview Park on the opening day of the Premier League season to face Loughgall in their first ever league game in the top flight of Irish League football. Ally Wilson's solitary goal earned a historic win for the Villagers and left the Braidmen with another early-season humbling defeat under their belt; a few days later the Sky Blues bowed out of the League Cup to Glentoran at the Oval to the same scoreline.
Form picked up over the month of October as defender Gordon Simms scored back-to-back last minute winners against Newry City and Dungannon Swifts. However, the highpoint of the domestic season came at Windsor Park as Ballymena United claimed their first win at the International venue for 15 years! Beating defending champions Linfield and ending their 33-game unbeaten run in the process. Teenage starlet Dominic Melly (left) was the unlikely hero as his 27th minute strike sent a large travelling support into raptures to break the Windsor hoodoo - as the press even began to talk up a title challenge from Kenny Shiels' side.
Whilst the away game against Odense had seen one of the greatest results by a Ballymena United team - the first round of the County Antrim Shield in late October produced arguably the most embarassing in the club's 76-year history three days after beating the champions in their own back yard. Amateur League side Kilmore Rec. shocked the football fraternity in Ulster by stunning Ballymena with a last-minute goal from future Distillery and Glentoran striker Andrew Waterworth to unceremoniously dump the diabolical Ballymena out of the Shield.
A lack of any form of consistency and too many draws effectively ruined any futile chance of a title challenge at the Braid; as United only picked up one win after the Linfield game until the New Year. Shiels sent out-of-favour Shea Campbell out on loan to Armagh City despite the club's lack of goals - which also wasn't helped when recent signing Tim McCann suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury against Omagh Town in December.
The Ballymena Showgrounds was packed to the rafters on Boxing Day for the first festive derby against Coleraine in four years. However, the Skies squandered a comfortable two goal lead to draw 2-2 with their bitter rivals in the last game of 2004. Shiels moved to increase his attacking options for the New Year with Ards' striker Darren Fitzgerald finally moving to United after a protracted transfer dating back to October when the County Down club breached the striker's contract. Meanwhile last year's leading goalscorer moved to champions Linfield after falling out of favour with Shiels, he had spent the early part of the season on loan at Armagh City despite the shortage of goals at the Showgrounds.
A post-Christmas lull was was sorted with favourable run in the Irish Cup in the new year, this seemingly reinvigorated Ballymena United's season as wins over Coagh United, Kilmore Rec and Harland & Wolff Welders secured a passage to the semi-finals for the first time since 1999.
The signings of strikers Gareth Mullan from Derry City and Englishman Matthew Nolan, on loan from Peterborough United, boosted the attacking line as the Sky Blues' turn in form left them in the driving seat for qualification into Europe through the Intertoto Cup again. The Braidmen went ten games undefeated from the end of February to the start of April - with the highlight being an outstanding 2-0 win over title-chasing Portadown at home; however the major low point of said run was the cruciate knee injury suffered by Darren Fitzgerald against his former club, Ards.
Ballymena United looked to be odds on favourites to reach their first Irish Cup final since 1989, however a dubious penalty by Mark Dickson secured Larne's place in the showpiece and broke United hearts in which was undoubtedly one of the one-sided games many supporters had ever witnessed as a string of world-class saves from former Ballymena goalkeeper Alex Spackman kept Kenny Shiels' side at bay for 90 minutes.
This ultimately spelt the end for manager Shiels, as the Braidmen stumbled over the finish-line in their remaining league fixtures; finishing a disappointing eighth in the table and surrendering a place in the Intertoto Cup which looked almost certain weeks before. After four and a half seasons at the Warden Street Showgrounds, manager Shiels was relieved of his duties.
Season Review by Neil Coleman