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Tuesday 3rd October v. Lisburn Distillery (home) - BetMcLean League Cup rd1 - k.o: 7:45pm

Back Row (left to right): Phillip Knell, Jason Allen, Glenn Hunter, Barry Patton, Robbie Beck, Mark Carlisle, PJ O'Connell, John McDowell.

Front Row (left to right): Keith Percy, Dessie Loughery, Ian Bustard, John McConnell, Nigel Boyd, Paul Muir.

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Irish News Cup Finalists

AFTER four years in charge at Warden Street, manager Alan Fraser was dismissed hours after the final League game after failing to turn the Sky Blues into a competitive force within the Irish League again.

An encouraging return to top-flight football the season before had raised expectations in Mid-Antrim despite a very quiet summer in the transfer market. Veteran defender Stephen Stewart departed for Bangor whilst local midfielder Darren Parker joined from Glentoran on the eve of the season, in the only major dealings ahead of the new season.

It was to be a season of change off the pitch though as in August, Chairman Edwin McLaughlin stepped down from his post only to be talked out of it; whilst his Vice-Chairman Gordon McIlrath also resigned but stuck by his decision. Shay Hamill returned to the club as Reserve Team manager after Steel & Sons Cup winning manager Jimmy Young stepped down and finally Ballymena United became the first Irish League club to go worldwide with an Official website which was the work of Martin Harris.

The season started victory over Glenavon with under-fire record signing Glenn Hunter getting the only goal. Fraser built his side around a solid defence and they only conceded once in the first five games to leave the Braidmen within touching distance of the summit even at this early stage - this also included a 1-0 victory over reigning champions Cliftonville at Solitude.

Having started the season with virtually the same squad as the last, there was a mini-exodus two months into the season as talented midfielders Peter Murray and Neil Candlish both left for Cliftonville and Portadown respectively. Goalkeeper Matt Kerr also left to focus on his studies whilst young starlet Chris Baird signed for English Premier League side Southampton - the Rasharkin youngster would go onto be a key play for the national side.

It wasn't all one way though as Fraser signed midfielder Keith Percy from Loughgall and Kevin O'Hagan from Larne as cover around the same time the club unveiled their new bright yellow away strip, which proved surprisingly popular with supporters.

United's home form proved vital to their early season success as they lost only one of their first eleven fixtures at Warden Street and an impressive one goal victory over Linfield thanks to a Phillip Knell goal and also a score draw with early pace-setters Glentoran; ensured their place within the top-four. Ballymena ended the year in style with a Boxing Day victory over the old rivals, Coleraine, thanks to a Dessie Loughery strike.

In the early season Gold Cup competition, United finished top of their group which included Coleraine and Cliftonville and earned a quarter-final against Portadown at Shamrock Park in which Ballymena disappointingly lost to a struggling Portadown side.

Inconsistency proved to be Ballymena's main flaw in the run up to the New Year as for every good result there was a slip-up not far away as the push began for a European place for the first time in ten years with United four points off third place at the turn of the year.

Any sort of League form went out the window as 1999 approached as the team could barely buy a win in the League and also suffered the misfortunate of being dumped out of both the County Antrim Shield and the League Cup at the first hurdles by the Belfast 'Big Two'.

United saved arguably their best performance of the season for the visit of David Jeffrey's Linfield side in February as they ran out convincing 4-2 winners; effectively ending the Windsor Blues' lingering title challenge. The highlight of the afternoon was a stunning strike from long-serving defender Mark Carlisle, only his second goal for the Skies in nearly 300 appearances.

Attentions turned to the Irish Cup for a change in fortunes, as Fraser's side managed to overcome the first three rounds against First Division opposition to make it to the semi-final stage for the first time since 1992. Larne, Ballyclare Comrades and Distillery all fell by the wayside as United faced up against struggling Portadown at the Oval in the last-four stage. However, a pathetic showing by the Braidmen gifted the Ports a 2-0 victory and a place in the showpiece final against Cliftonville.

As if losing the semi-final without a fight wasn't bad enough - in the run up to the final it turned out that Cliftonville had fielded the ineligible Simon Gribben in the competition and were kicked out of the competition. The final was postponed and the Irish Cup, the prize money and the place in Europe was handed to Portadown without a ball being kicked, just to rub salt into Ballymena wounds.

In the closing months of the season fans-favourite Dessie Loughery, who had celebrated his testimonial a year previously, announced that he was to quit the Showgrounds after 11 years citing travelling as the major factor in his decision to leave. His finale was unceremonious as he was dropped for the Irish News Cup final after 'showboating' in his Showgrounds farewell and was not to be seen again.

The Premier League campaign ended poorly as United finished a disappointing sixth in the table and hours after the final league game of the season - which also seen Glentoran crowned Gibson Cup winners after a 6-3 victory - Alan Fraser was sacked as manager.

However, the season wasn't over yet as Ballymena United still had the small matter of the Irish News Cup final against Finn Harps. Shay Hamill took caretaker charge of the team as a young United side lost 2-0 to ex-United favourite Johnny Speak's Finn Harps side at Ballybofey in what turned out to be the final year of the North-West cross-border competition, which was scrapped soon after.

It turned out to be a season of massive anti-climax for Ballymena supporters, but the search began for a new manager at Warden Street and a new era awaited.

Season Review by Neil Coleman