A look back at a solid season for Ballyclare

Eddie Hill
Eddie Hill
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Good runs in three cup competitions, and a top-half finish in their first season in Championship 1 made it a successful season for Ballyclare Comrades.

Only a glut of end-of-season fixtures that included seven games in three weeks, prevented Eddie Hill’s lads from a much higher placing.

In March, a top-four finish was on the radar, but a disastrous run of six successive defeats almost plunged the team in to a relegation battle.

Hill came out of retirement to steady the ship, and three wins from the last four, had the fans smiling again.

Having to play 42 matches was a lot to ask of part-time players, with no fewer than 16 of these in knockout competitions.

In the League Cup they were ousted by Glentoran in the second round, but they fared much better in the Steel and Sons Cup, when they advanced to the semi-final, before falling to Amateur League side, Immaculata.

In the Irish Cup, Crusaders ended the Reds’ hopes at the quarter-final stage, and it was a similar story in the Intermediate Cup, when the Comrades were pipped by Armagh City with a place in the last four beckoning.

So there was no silverware to show for their efforts, but Hill was satisfied with performances overall.

“Coming up from Championship 2 and working on a limited budget, I was aiming to consolidate our position at the higher level, and we achieved that,” he emphasised.

“Our bread and butter is the league programme, and the top-half finish despite that end-of-season blip was most satisfying.

“The players love the cup competitions, but 16 of them meant a fixture pile-up at the end of the season, when it is too much to ask part-timers to play three matches a week for several weeks.

Commenting on the fitness of the players, he added: “Stuart McClean and Gary Bell do a tremendous job on training nights, resulting in us having one of the fittest teams in the league.

“More importantly than that, they instil a work ethic in the squad that is transferred from training ground to match day.

“There is a great togetherness between the lads; they play for each other, and their efforts are much appreciated by the fans.”

Asked about the preparations for the new season, Hill added: “The lads have all signed up again for another season, but I am always on the lookout to strengthen our squad, and already Gary Brown is back with us after having been unavailable all season.”

Hill is also pleased with the club’s set-up with several youth teams in operation most weekends.

“Stephen Hughes is doing a brilliant job as youth co-ordinator, and winning the Ballymena Junior League Division 1 title with a bunch of teenagers was more than we could ever have hoped for.

“His remit is to unearth nuggets and prepare them for the senior squad, and already Joel Cooper is a regular who has settled in well alongside much more experienced players.”

As regards statistics, 94 goals were scored, with Chris Trussell retaining the trophy he won last season, when he topped the charts with an impressive 27.

Runner-up, Kyle Agnew, trailed well behind on 12, and he was the only other payer to get in to double figures, while Daniel Smith and Johnny McClurg each scored seven.

Nobody managed to achieve a 100 per cent attendance, but Smith played in 41 of the 42 fixtures, followed by Paddy Flood, Kyle Buckley each with 38, while Chris Getty Adam Gray and Agnew each clocked up 36.

These figures all include selections as substitutes, whether used or not.

Goalkeeper Flood, who took over as skipper in mid-season following the departure of Andrew Doyle to Nortel, recorded seven clean sheets, while at the opposite end of the spectrum Comrades failed to score on nine occasions, and two of these were against Premiership opponents Glentoran and Crusaders.