Belfast Telegraph

Ballymena's top six aim stays the same ahead of toughest title race: David Jeffrey

Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey
Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey

By Graham Luney

At the start of last season, no one knew what to expect from Ballymena United and everyone was in for a surprise.

Manager David Jeffrey had embarked on what was one of his busiest transfer windows, with the Showgrounds resembling Heathrow Airport at Christmas.

Given the vast number of changes to the playing staff, it was unclear how quickly the fresh faces would gel.

You can never be sure whether a player will sink or swim in new surroundings but Jeffrey, Bryan McLoughlin and his team including talent spotter Paul McAreavey understand the importance of signing the right player as well as the right person.

By the end of the campaign, the Sky Blues were the only side breathing down the neck of Linfield in the title race. Even the most optimistic United fan didn't see that coming.

And just to reduce expectations a little further this summer, the club only went and recorded their first European victory.

Linfield deserved the plaudits for winning the Championship but United's achievement in finishing runner-up, guaranteeing European football for the second time in three years, was a remarkable success story, particularly given the number of changes to the first-team squad.

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The Braidmen also reached the League Cup decider in February but it was their Premiership form which really commanded respect.

Maybe teams will be wiser to them this campaign and show them the respect they deserve.

They will certainly not be a surprise package anymore.

The fans will expect them to challenge for honours once again.

Johnny McMurray's departure was disappointing but the arrival of Josh Kelly, Declan Carville, Kenny Kane and Ross Lavery has bolstered the squad.

Following Lavery's signing, Jeffrey commented: "What is clear is that we have a young man of great character and integrity, who for one reason or another wasn't able to get as much opportunity as he liked, and that's similar to a number of the players we have brought in, that the situation they found themselves in previously just didn't work out."

The new arrivals will aim to make a big impact in the way Kofi Balmer, Steven McCullough, Leroy Millar, Andy McGrory and Adam Lecky have lit up the Showgrounds.

NSI Runavik were conquered in the Europa League and a heavy loss to Swedish side Malmo hasn't dented confidence or morale one bit.

"We started the season very well in terms of Europe," added the former Linfield boss.

"It's the first time we have won a European game in the club's history so we have had a pleasing, successful and productive pre-season.

"This is probably going to be one of the toughest and most competitive years.

"People will ask you what you hope to do and where you want to be but the target for us remains the same - can we be a top-six team again and that's it.

"I don't need to speak about other clubs' strengths because that's well documented but we punched well above our weight last season and what we achieved was incredible.

"Are we going to strive to do as well as that or better? Of course we are, but I've been doing this for a long time and you sometimes need a big dose of reality too."

United's rivals won't be underestimating them this season but Jeffrey is focused on his own players' mentality and focus.

"I think every club will look after themselves," he added.

"We don't go looking for praise from anyone else.

"What we have achieved speaks volumes for what we are trying to do. I'm just hoping we can do as well again."

United frontman Lecky could not have expected his first season at the Showgrounds to go so swimmingly.

The former Ballinamallard man was named in the Premiership Team of the Season and also nominated for Player of the Year.

"The challenge is there to always progress and get better but we have set the benchmark quite high with that second-place finish," said Lecky.

"Personally, it will be a big ask for me to have a better season but a year ago I didn't really have much of a pre-season and that showed at the start.

"This year I'm hoping to hit the ground running after a good pre-season.

"I'm focused on getting in the team and scoring goals.

"I think, to a certain extent, we were an unknown quantity last season because we had a significant turnover of players and we ended up surprising ourselves.

"This year the squad has been kept together and teams will be wise to us this time.

"They will look to make life more difficult for us and it's going to be hard to meet that challenge alongside the further competition from the likes of full-time Larne and a stronger Linfield and Crusaders.

"The top seven or eight teams will be more competitive and that will make it a tougher season for everyone. It's a challenge we will relish.

"I'd imagine we will try to replicate what happened last season by qualifying for Europe and anything on top of that will be a bonus."

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