ROY Walker got his eyes opened to the huge task lying ahead of him at Warden Street after a disappointing first season in charge of Ballymena United.
The season started in ridiculous fashion as the club appointed Jim Grattan to replace the outgoing Tommy Wright in May, however within a few days it turned out that Grattan was unable to take up his position due to commitments with the IFA, and embarrassingly the search began for the new manager all over again.
This left the door open for former Crusaders and Glenavon boss Roy Walker (left) to answer the call from the Showgrounds, as the former two-time Irish League winning manager was a unanimous choice to take over despite being out of club management for nearly a decade.
Pre-season seen major unrest amongst some players as Albert Watson and Craig McClean submitted transfer requests soon after the appointment of Walker, which were both rejected, whilst Linfield began their relentless pursuit of star-striker Kevin Kelbie with numerous unwanted bids, this didn't end until the transfer window closing in August when United's nerve had been tested with a £40,000 offer.
Walker, who spent a chunk of the summer working on his coaching badges, started to mould his own team by moving a number of Tommy Wright's regulars from the previous campaign out; these included Simon Kelly (Dundalk), Paul Murphy (Newry City), Darren Fitzgerald (Ards), Lee Patrick (Limavady United), Garth Scates (Glenavon) and Stephen Lowry (Limavady United). Whilst Nigel Boyd ended his 13-year association with club joining newly-promoted Bangor, along with coaches Jeff Montgomery and David Dorrian.
Coming in though were a number of players signed on pre-contracts by former manager, Wright, these included Joe McDonnell (Newry City), Gavin McDonnell (Glenavon) and Alan Blayney (Bohemians) whilst Walker bolstered his attack with the signing of former Sunderland striker Neil Teggart as his first signing. Roy Walker also installed fans favourite Gary Haveron as the new club captain at the Showgrounds.
The start of the newly revamped IFA Premiership was delayed by two weeks due to a referee's strike and then freak weather conditions. Walker's first game was a comfortable 3-0 win over Ballyclare Comrades in the County Antrim Shield, however the league campaign started disastrously with a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Cliftonville - this was to set an alarming tone for the early part of the campaign.
The Braidmen picked up an abysmal three points from the opening ten Premiership fixtures and were rooted to the bottom of the table, without a single victory - many supporters feared the worst. United were also dumped out of the County Antrim Shield unceremoniously by Glentoran, losing 6-1 at the Oval.
Tragedy struck the club with the death of the mother of defender Aaron 'Archie' Stewart (and wife of Reserve Team manager Alfie) as he drove her son from Magherafelt to the home game against Linfield in October. Fittingly, the Braidmen turned out their best performance of the season to beat the champions, Linfield with two goals from Kevin Kelbie (right) - the Scot later dedicated his brace to the late Lorraine Stewart.
Despite an early exit in the League Cup to Glentoran, again, the team's form was slowly beginning to pick up ahead of Ballymena United's historic first UK televised game against Newry City on Sky Sports. However, in front of a large crowd at Warden Street, United failed to show up and lost 3-2 to Newry City in full view of the whole of the United Kingdom.
With only one win in 17 league games, the trip to next placed Glenavon in November was massive, as defeat would leave Ballymena ten points away from safety. A performance inspired by Stuart King secured a 3-1 victory at Mourneview Park and bizarrely set the Sky Blues on a post Christmas roll which seen five consecutive victories including a late, late win over Glentoran and a Boxing Day victory over rivals Coleraine - Walker was awarded the Harp Lager Manager of the Month award for his team's turn in form. However disaster struck when both captain Gary Haveron and vice-captain Stuart King broke their leg and ankle respectively in December - striker Kevin Kelbie took up the captaincy for the remainder of the campaign.
By the turn of the New Year, Ballymena had won seven games out of nine and had hauled themselves off the bottom of the Premiership, and even had sights on breaking into the top six before the league split into two sections. Walker bolstered his defence with the experience of returning Ballymena man Paul Muir from Lisburn Distillery and exceptional young talent Michael Smith, striker Nathan McConnell also joined during the January transfer window.
United's optimism of an Irish Cup run was hampered by the harsh winter weather as it was the third attempt before the Sky Blues could finally get past Championship neighbours Ballyclare Comrades at Dixon Park in the Fourth Round, however the Irish Cup run only lasted four days as the Sky Blues were dumped in the following round by eventual winners, Crusaders, by a single goal.
This effectively spelt the end of Ballymena's season as they limped over the finish line without a whimper, a Paul Muir goal securing victory against Coleraine was the only real highlight of a frustrating final two months, which seen Walker's side slip down the league table without a fight - finishing tenth, the lowest top-flight finish since United were relegated in 2001.
Walker's response to his players was the promise of a mass clear-out - with no fewer than ten of his first team players set to leave over the summer, having either been transfer-listed or released, including leading goalscorer Neil Teggart, former player of the year Gavin Melaugh and former captain Albert Watson amongst others.
There were some positives in the season though - the emergence some more excellent young talent through the ranks as 20-year-old Lee Colligan swept the board at the end of season awards whilst the likes of Aaron Stewart, Ryan Deans, Michael Smith, Sean O'Neill and George Young featured prominently and United fans will look to many of these players having a bright future at Warden Street. Colligan and O'Neill both received caps for the Northern Ireland Under-21 side during the season and made history in being the first two United players to win caps at this level in the same season.
Season Review by Neil Coleman