Ballymena: A History (Part IV)

NIFL Championship

After his appointment, Ian Russell failed to live up to expectations and was unable to take Ballymena to the next level, lasting only six months in the job before being sacked by what was fast becoming a trigger, happy board.

Jim Platt was then appointed as player-manager and led the club to an Irish Cup triumph in 1984 beating Carrick in the final, inspired by teenager Johnny Speak. Platt also became the first Ballymena player to play for Northern Ireland since 1933 before leaving to manage rivals Coleraine in 1984.

Alan Campbell returned to the hot seat for, what would turn out to be a short, second term. He only remained for the 1984-85 season before leaving due to a mix of poor results and the fans treatment of his son Alan Campbell Junior. During that season, the club lost what was described as “One of the most embarrassing results in the club’s history” as they lost both legs in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup to Maltese minnows, Hamrun Spartans.

The Irish League came up with the idea of promotion and relegation and decided that they would combine the places of the 1993–94 and 1994–95 seasons to form a total score, on which to base a league. The managerial merry-go-round continued when local man Gary Erwin was appointed in October 1994 in a vain attempt to secure a place in the Premier League, despite a famous win against Linfield, he failed miserably and was shown the door in March 1995. Alan Fraser was brought in at the end of the 1994–95 season, to prepare for the forthcoming First Division campaign. Despite throwing the money about, United finished the following season well behind runaway leaders, Coleraine.

1996–97’s crop of players finally brought a League Championship to the Ballymena Showgrounds for the first time, albeit the First Division, which Alan Fraser’s side impressively won at a canter. This also ensured promotion to the top-flight after two seasons in the wilderness of the First Division as 21 wins from 28 games meant an astounding 15 point gap between United’s nearest challengers, Omagh Town, in second place. Fraser’s talented side also was close to a ‘double’ when they cruelly lost the final of the County Antrim Shield to Cliftonville on penalties after being on top for most of the game. The season ended with Dessie Loughery’s testimonial against Coleraine at the Showgrounds, which produced a stunning 5–1 victory to give the United fans a taste of what to expect the following season.

Ballymena United made a blistering start in their first season in the Premier League in 1997–98 and looked to be genuine title challengers by Christmas time as they topped the table after a stunning 4–3 victory over reigning Champions Crusaders. Leading to one of the biggest crowds in years at Warden Street for the Boxing Day derby against Coleraine; with an estimated 7,000 strong crowd packing into the Showgrounds. It all went wrong for Alan Fraser’s side as he splashed out a club record fee of £20,000 for Crusaders striker Glenn Hunter but the goals never came, and the in-form Barry Patton also saw his goals dry up as Ballymena finished sixth in the table – missing out on a top half finish on goal difference. The season almost ended in a trophy as they reached the final of the Irish News Cup, a cross-border cup competition for clubs in the North-West – but lost out to Omagh Town over two legs.