JUST elapsed is a season which promised so much but quickly fell off the rails with one penalty kick ultimately defining a campaign which just never fulfilled its potential.
Roy Walker's second season in charge was always going to be hard work after a poor 10th place showing in the inaugural IFA Premiership season the past year, but it wasn't going to be helped by the mass exodus of players who jumped ship at the first opportunity. Leading goalscorer Neil Teggart secured a lucrative move to Portadown whilst goalkeeper Alan Blayney joined Linfield and Gavin Melaugh signed for Lisburn Distillery. There were no fewer than 11 departures before the close of the transfer window as Walker started with a clean-slate ahead of the new season; also leaving were Craig McClean & Michael Ward (both Dungannon Swifts), Stuart King (Glenavon), Gavin McDonnell (Newry City), Thomas Wray (Institute), Thomas Burke and Liam Mullan (both released).
With an ever decreasing budget, the former Crusaders boss sought replacements from the lower leagues and the fringes of other sides. Mark Surgenor (Ballymoney United), Gavin Taggart (Newington YC) and Ormo Okunaiya (Carrick Rangers) all made the step up to the top flight and all enjoyed an impressive pre-season. Relegated Bangor were raided for the established midfield duo Noel Anderson and Darren Lockhart, while long-time target Philip Carson finally put pen to paper following his departure from Glentoran. Arguably one of the coups of the summer was the signing of 18 cap Northern Ireland striker Andy Smith from Portadown after a season in the footballing wilderness.
A low-key pre-season preceded the opening game of the Carling IFA Premiership, which ended in a 1-0 defeat to Cliftonville at the Showgrounds. Although despite the defeat, the remarkable difference in the performance compared to the corresponding opening fixture a year earlier was enough to renew optimism at the Braid that the club were moving forward. The following Tuesday night, United got their season going with a routine 4-0 victory over Harland & Wolff Welders in the first round of the County Antrim Shield in which Andy Smith opened his goalscoring account.
Arguably one of the lowest points of the season came in the second match of the league campaign during a routine trip to Stangmore Park in which almost every Ballymena United supporter, official or player blissfully unaware of what was happening or the magnitude of the repercussions for the Sky Blues. Referee Trevor Mountray alleged to have heard racist chanting from the visiting support towards Dungannon's Caribbean goalkeeper Alvin Rouse - his report was also backed up by the IFA delegate much to the bemusement of everyone in attendance. United lost the game 2-1 but the damage to the club's reputation and the following £1,250 fine was of much higher concern as this issue continued to drag on throughout most of the season.
Back on the pitch, Ballymena were still without a winin the League after missing the chance to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Coleraine, when Andy Smith's penalty (which would have put the Braidmen into a 3-2 lead) sailed out of the Coleraine Showgrounds and the Bannsiders' talisman Rory Patterson gave an early indication of his talents with a late winner to seal a remarkable hat-trick. United's luck was also compounded when club captain Gary Haveron suffered a broken leg for the second time in less than 12 months. The following Saturday seen 9-man United fight valiantly against Crusaders at Warden Street but lose by the odd goal; a credible feat given that Walker's men were forced to play with outfield player Mark Surgenor in goal following the idiotic dismissal of Northern Ireland Under-21 goalkeeper Sean O'Neill.
Roy Walker brought in two former United goalkeepers Dwayne Nelson (Dungannon) and Aaron Kerr (Crusaders) and it was the latter, on-loan, who had the daunting task of keeping goal for a mid-week trip to the Oval to face reigning Premiership champions, Glentoran. To the surprise of many Ballymena played Alan McDonald's Glentoran off the park and recorded a 2-1 victory with Kevin Kelbie capping off a tremendous performance with two well taken goals. In typical fashion though, Ballymena capitulated to a humiliating three goal defeat to Glenavon in the following game.
Thankfully, Ballymena began to hit some form in the remainder of September as they won four of their six games, following comfortable away wins against strugglers Institute and Lisburn Distillery along with Donegal Celtic in the County Antrim Shield quarter-finals. A remarkable game against recently promoted Portadown at the Showgrounds left United fans buzzing following Kelbie’s dramatic injury time strike which gave the Sky Blues a 2-1 victory. Whilst the goals were flowing for the in-form Scotsman, it was a frustrating time for his partner Andy Smith as he was still waiting any advance on his single early-season strike. A midweek game against title-challenging Cliftonville changed that though as Smith, as captain for the night, produced an outstanding performance capped off with a goal in a 2-0 win which also seen teenage defender Chris Ramsey make his debut a day after joining from Manchester City.
Further impressive home victories against Coleraine and Crusaders pushed Ballymena United into the top six for the first time since the new 12-team league format was introduced but it would be a fleeting stay as one of the games of the season would have a devastating affect on Walkers’ young side. For the second time in three months they put Champions Glentoran to the sword as two Nathan McConnell goals put Ballymena into a seemingly unassailable 2-0 lead with the Sky Blue faithful in dream-land. However the East-Belfast Glens rocked the home side with a remarkable comeback with three goals in the final seven minutes to snatch one of the most dramatic victories ever seen in the Irish League with Colin Nixon’s winner coming four minutes into stoppage time.
This had a severely damaging effect on the inexperienced Sky Blues as this defeat began a winless streak which stretched to nine games. A dismal two legged defeat to struggling Institute in the third round of the League Cup was only the start of things to come as Ballymena’s season began to unravel before supporters’ eyes in the run up to the Christmas period; new Distillery manager Tommy Wright returned to the Showgrounds and claimed a shock win for his side who were rooted to the bottom of the table in December whilst in the next game struggling striker Andy Smith found himself on the end of a six-game suspension for an attempted head-butt towards Newry City's Darren King. Speculation was also mounting that star striker Kevin Kelbie was to be sold to Glentoran in January, to avoid losing him for free in the summer, the Scottish striker’s form suffered as a result of the transfer rumours.
United suffered off the pitch as well, as the economic downturn took it’s toll on the club as the board campaigned for supporters to back a new share issue with the aim of raising £90,000 to secure the stability of the club. It was to be a bad season for many Irish League clubs financially, as there was constant speculation throughout the season about the future of many clubs throughout the league.
However, in typical fashion the Sky Blues pulled a result out of the bag which surprised everyone as they produced a magnificent performance to turn over Champions-to-be Linfield at the Showgrounds. The ever-green Darren Lockhart opened the scoring before Kelbie showed his undoubted class to turn the Blues’ defence inside out and double the advantage and provide the rapturous United faithful with an early Christmas present. This was to be Ballymena's last game for almost a month though as a particularly harsh winter brought a halt to virtually all sports throughout the province, much to the dismay of many clubs relying on their bumper gates from the holiday fixtures.
Ballymena returned to action for the Irish Cup fifth round but needed a replay against Championship side Ards, after drawing the first game 0-0; it took a Kevin Kelbie winner in extra-time to see off the courageous North Down side. The next round provided a much more comfortable outcome as Kelbie again was the hero following a hat-trick in the 5-2 victory over Fermanagh based Ballinamallard United as some began to dream that the Irish Cup may just return to Warden Street for a seventh time.
Walker's only major signing in the January transfer window was Scottish winger Gary Muir from Clyde, but despite a bright start he proved to be a highly disappointing; Out-of-favour Paul Muir and Joe McDonnell both moved to Tommy Wright’s Lisburn Distillery, with the latter on loan for the remainder of the season. But United's cup form was beginning to bear fruit in the League with impressive victories over Cliftonville and Glenavon at the Showgrounds to rejuvenate the club’s slim hope of a top six finish.
The aftermath of the Dungannon Race Row returned to the fore in February, as Ballymena travelled to Stangmore Park for the first time since the allegations made back in August. United's appeal was rejected regarding the £1,250 fine which led to a boycott of the game by loyal Ballymena United supporters who chose to attend United's Reserve game against Dungannon’s second string. The game proved to be a mere sideshow to the press that preceded it, as Ryan McIlmoyle's late winner sealed the points after Mark Surgenor thought he had at least guaranteed a point minutes earlier. This was to unfortunately spell the end for Ballymena's League aspirations as the focus quickly turned to the Irish Cup.
The quarter-final stage provided an exciting contest at Mourneview Park against Glenavon, as Ballymena attempted to shake off a miserable record of 3 wins in 21 years against top-flight opposition in the Irish Cup. The game didn't disappoint as the visitors raced into a 3-1 lead which included the goal of the season from the ever-improving Michael Smith. Glenavon fought back to 3-3 and forced a replay, but the following Tuesday night Roy Walker's team executed a polished and professional performance to send United into their first Irish Cup semi-final in five years.
Ballymena went into the game short of any sort of League form but with high hopes this could our year. Portadown provided the opponents in what turned out to be another heart-breaking evening in the love affair of this long suffering football club. Despite going behind early on at Windsor Park, in-form Andy Smith rifled a superb equaliser to equalise. The game remained level in normal time and penalties further beckoned after substitute Mark Surgenor failed to convert a gilt-edged chance at the end of extra-time. Penalties were the cruel decider and David Miskelly's save from Archie Stewart sent the Ports to the final at the Sky Blues' expense in heart-breaking fashion.
After failing to break into the top half prior to the split it was a low-key ending to the season, cumulating in a tenth place finish again - with Walker threatening serious changes during the summer.
Season Review by Neil Coleman