The Barclays Premier League begins next weekend and Liverpool new boy Alberto Aquilani could be called into immediate action against Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield (pending medicals). Closer to home the rather grandly titled Carling Premiership kicks off on Saturday. Perennial favourites, Glentoran and Linfield, face trickier opening fixtures than they might ideally have chosen. The reining champions face Distillery in Lisburn whilst David Jeffrey’s shower travel to Coleraine.
However all eyes (or at least these eyes) will be trained on the Showgrounds where Roy Walker’s Ballymena United side begins its title challenge against Cliftonville. The Sky Blues’ pre-season has been rather compact this year and I have only managed to attend one of the friendly matches. It was a rather patchy display against Dunmurry Rec, which the senior outfit eventually won by three goals to one.
That game saw the debut of former international player Andy Smith, a striker of whom much will be expected in the forthcoming year. Walker, has also freshened up his midfield, adding goalscoring winger Okunaiya, Noel Anderson, Philip Carson and veteran Darren Lockhart. Various players have been sold or released, without noticeably diminishing the options available to the United manager.
Much will depend on Andy Smith’s ability to form a partnership with highly rated Scottish forward, Kevin Kelbie. If the two front men can establish an understanding and Gary Haveron, the club’s versatile defender and captain, can remain fit, then Ballymena fans are entitled to expect an improvement from last season.
Since Ards departed the top flight, the Braidman invariably top the table in August, before any games have been played. Only the most optimistic supporter would predict that the club will retain this berth as the season progresses. Roy Walker’s task is to seek a finish in the top five and attempt to bring some much needed silverware to Ballymena, in the form of a cup (any cup).