The Wait Goes On (2000–2009)
Fraser's replacement and the man set to lead Ballymena United into the new century was former Glenavon and Bangor manager Nigel Best, who was appointed in May 1999. However with his predecessor's ageing side starting to break up and with little money to finance quality replacements; it was little surprise when Best's team struggled badly during the 1999–2000 campaign. Striker and talisman Glenn Hunter proved his worth by almost single-handedly keeping the Sky Blues in the division, as United avoided relegation on the final day of the season after defeating Portadown at Shamrock Park to maintain top-flight status amidst wild scenes of jubilation.
More departures followed the next summer, and despite an encouraging start to the 2000–01 season, United's frailties caught up with them and Nigel Best was sacked after an unacceptable run of results in December 2000, cumulating with a 5–2 defeat to Newry Town. Bizarrely, the club appointed unqualified club physiotherapist George Magill as caretaker-manager until a suitable successor to Best could be found. Glenn Hunter, who had taken time out of the game to pursue a fire-fighting career would act as Magill's assistant. In January 2001, former Coleraine manager Kenny Sheils took the reins of the side with the sole aim of keeping the Braidmen in the Premier League. Despite a late flurry in the final weeks of the campaign Ballymena just weren't good enough and suffered relegation to the First Division after failing to defeat Portadown at home, when a win would have at least guaranteed another shot at survival in the play-offs.
It proved a season of rebuilding in the second-tier of Irish League football as the erratic Shiels made a number of 'big-name' signings which all flopped before the eyes of the supporters; former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Tommy Wright, former Leeds United defender Paul Beesley and Liberian striker Leon Browne all failed miserably to make an impact at the Braid. This left Shiels with a number of totally inexperienced teenagers fighting his cause, however despite their best efforts, they slumped to a dismal fifth place finish during the 2001–02 season – United's lowest ever placing in their history.
Despite the previous season’s disappointment, Shiels’ side bounced back with style the following season. Buoyed by the completion of an impressive new 2,000 seated stand at the Showgrounds, the free-scoring Sky Blues were playing an exciting and unstoppable brand of football, however they finished the season with little to show for their season, finishing runners-up in the Ulster Cup, County Antrim Shield and First Division. The league campaign was particularly sickening for Ballymena fans despite promotion, as they were leading the table for many weeks, only to capitulate to Dungannon Swifts during the final run-in. Media attention also circled around starlet striker Shea Campbell who bagged 38 goals and a Northern Ireland Under-21 cap as he was being hawked to moves across the water and also in the Irish League before committing himself to the Sky Blues.
Promotion back to the restricted sixteen team Premier League proved difficult at first for Shiels and his untested side. However the influence from former Nottingham Forest forward Nigel Jemson proved key to Ballymena’s success during the 2003–04 campaign as they equalled their best placed finish in the Premier League by finishing sixth and also gaining a return to European competition for the first time in 15 years through the Intertoto Cup. Ballymena travelled to Danish side Odense in June 2004 and produced a remarkable scoreless draw against the full-time side – only to lose the home second leg heavily with Spanish side Villarreal waiting in the next round. Shiels was given the finance to attempt to bring the Gibson Cup to Mid-Antrim for the first time and signed a number of quality local players in Rory Hamill, Gary Smyth, Gordon Simms and Tim McCann but his team didn’t not produce a return on his investment and eventually cost Shiels his job after four and half seasons at the helm. The final nail in the coffin was the Irish Cup semi-final defeat to minnows Larne at the Oval, as the Braidmen finished a disappointing eighth after a season that had promised so much.
Former Northern Ireland and United goalkeeper Tommy Wright took over as manager on a full-time basis – a first for the club. Despite a slow start, he stamped his authority on the side bringing a number of new players in including a young Scottish striker Kevin Kelbie, whose goals in the second half of the season almost fired United to their first trophy in 17 years when they agonisingly lost the County Antrim Shield final to Linfield at Seaview. A credible seventh place was reward for Wright's work over the course of the 2005–06 season.
The following year proved disappointing as the club failed to make any progression to becoming a side capable of winning trophies after finishing ninth, the highlight of the season was the visit of English Premier League side Manchester City to Warden Street as part of the transfer deal that took goalkeeper Richard McKinney to England eight years earlier. The next season though saw Wright's side finally come of age as after an incredible 4–2 victory at the Oval on New Year’s Day 2008 they looked like potential title challengers. This was to be the pinnacle of the success as teenage sensation Johnny Flynn was sold to Blackburn Rovers, and Wright was linked with a move to Norwich City. Although the manager signed a new contract in January, his team collapsed in their pursuit of success and Wright resigned in April 2008 only to re-emerge at Norwich City a few months later.
Former Crusaders manager Roy Walker was coaxed into a return to management in May 2008, following Jim Grattan's inability to take up office through his employers at the Irish Football Association. Walker's tenure at the Showgrounds throughout the inaugural years of the revamped IFA Premiership were unspectacular with a string of bottom half finishes with glimpses of brilliance from Walker's young team which was rebuilt from scratch. The Sky Blues agonisingly lost in the semi-final of the 2009–10 Irish Cup to Portadown on penalties, in the closest attempt at silverware.
Famous quotes containing the word wait:
“I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were the good and the brave ever in a majority? Would you have had him wait till that time came?till you and I came over to him?”
—Henry David Thoreau (18171862)