Wakehurst Football Club is preparing for the most “challenging” season in the club’s history as an Irish League club.
That was the view of club captain and committee member Douglas Stevenson as the Ballymena men looked back on an indifferent campaign at its annual dinner, held in Leighinmohr House Hotel, on Saturday night.
“The season just past wasn’t our finest hour,” admitted Stevenson, after the club finished 13th in the 15-team third tier of what is still known in popular parlance as the Irish League.
“The season ahead is going to be a challenge on the back of the way the league is being restructured.”
The skipper also paid tribute to the unstinting work of a number of volunteers behind the scenes at the club.
He also praised the club’s partnership with Northend United Youth Football Club, which has already paid dividends with the emergence of teenage defender Niall Swann, who established himself as a regular starter in the first team last season.
“Niall is a shining example of what this relationship can bring to the club.
“It has given Niall a vehicle to show his ability and there will be others coming behind him as well.”
Stevenson also paid tribute to the work of coach Darren Parker and manager Ian Gregg.
“Ian remains an inspiration to all of us and I’m sorry that our efforts haven’t repaid his enthusiasm this season.
“We look forward to repaying the faith and confidence that he has shown in us in the coming season.”
Manager Gregg paid tribute to everyone connected with the club for sticking together in the face of a season punctuated by disappointing results.
“We couldn’t have had the season we had and come out the other side if we hadn’t all been in it together.
“I have always felt that sense of togetherness, even from the players who haven’t been playing but who have come along to lend their support.”
With regard to results, Ian said: “I still believe we finished where we deserved to finish - the league table doesn’t lie.
“But by the same token, we didn’t do ourselves justice - with the talent we have within our squad, we should have done better.
“If we look back at the past dozen or so years we have been competing at this level, this is the first time we have had to look over our shoulders so when it’s put into perspective, we should look at that with pride.
“When you look at the teams we are competing against and the resources they have compared with us, sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit.
“That doesn’t mean what happened this season was good enough but it shows we have battled hard.
“Most of our players could go and play junior football for good teams at that level and be highly successful but they choose to get the most out of their talent by choosing to be part of this project and they are to be commended for that.
“I see players turning up and giving everything out on the training ground and I know how disappointed our players are with how our season went but they kept on going for the club.
“I admire them for saying ‘I want to play as high as I can’.”
Looking ahead to next season, Gregg alluded to his captain’s earlier comments about the restructuring of Championship Two, which could potentially see four clubs relegated in order to bring the division down to 12 teams for the start of the 2016-17 season.
“We shouldn’t be thinking ‘we could be one of those four clubs’ - we are going to rebuild and have a lash at it.
“Our project has always been based around the idea that a town of this size should have a decent Premiership club and a top-notch intermediate side.
“That way, players who don’t quite make the grade at Ballymena United can come to us and play at the next highest level.
Gregg also expressed his intention to “cement” the club’s links with Northend, stressing: “They are vital to us - we need the young players coming through.
Midfielder Andy Laughlin dominated the prizes, winning both the Player of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year accolades, while COnor Gregg was leading goalscorer.
“Sometimes Andy is not the most stylish player on the park but very often, he is one of the most effective,” added Gregg, who also paid tribute to the efforts of outgoing reserve team manager Andy Erwin.
Ryan Armstrong was named reserve team player of the year, while CHarles Allen was Players’ Player of the Year. John Alexander was leading goalscorer for the second string.