It has been a hectic time for Ballinamallard in recent months, with the ongoing relegation saga extending last season into late June before the club finally confirmed their place in the top flight for this campaign. The shortened break between seasons did the players and management no favours, but behind the scenes the club officials were also under pressure as Ballinamallard were trying to deal with the upheaval of a looming change in management alongside the on pitch dramas.
Whitey Anderson’s decision to stand down from his role as first team boss sparked a hunt for a new boss, and chairman Jeff Aiken was at the helm as they brought in Gavin Dykes to replace Whitey. The board also had to find a new manager for the second team with the departure of Scott Robinson to Fivemiletown. Although it was a period of uncertainty, the Chairman believes they now have a set up that will allow the club to build on previous successes.
“It has been very busy,” acknowledged Jeff. “We had to go through the process of advertising, meeting and interviewing prospective managers and I think we made the right choice. Certainly we have been massively impressed by Gavin Dykes in the time he has been here and from that perspective we are looking forward to the season with confidence. Gavin had a hard man to replace because Whitey had been there for so long with such success. A new man coming in will have new thoughts on how to do things and it will take some time to get those new thoughts across to the players but there has been good feedback from people down watching training and there is a great buzz around the club. The new manager has brought in a few new players and we are excited by what we have seen of the new lads. They look very promising. Scott Robinson has moved on to Fivemiletown, and Scott goes with the best wishes of all everybody because he did a fantastic job for us. Thankfully there is continuity there because Derek Sharpe who looked after the under 19s and was director of the academy is moving up.”
Gavin’s first job as manager was to try to assemble a squad of players good enough to keep the club in the Premier League, but the financial constraints have been much tighter than last season. In January the club brought in two big name signings in Ivan Sproule and Stephen O’Flynn, but the new boss has not had that luxury and sacrificed both Alvin Rouse and Emmet Friars for budgetary reasons, while renegotiating new and existing deals to save some money. Jeff Aiken admits that the new boss has had less money to play with than his predecessor. “It was a difficult year for the club financially,” he acknowledged. “Our home gate income dropped around £1,000 per match. For big teams that might not be a lot but for Ballinamallard over a season that was something like £23,000 which is a lot of money. It’s hard to understand why that happened. Performances on the pitch might have had something to do with it, but also some of the people supporting Ballinamallard previously may have been there for the novelty and that has started to wear off, and it may have been a novelty for visiting supporters as well making the trip, but we are hoping that will change. The budget has had to reduce because as officers and custodians of the club we have to put the club first so we have had to cut our budget accordingly. In fairness Gavin was aware of the budget at the start of the season and it has never been an issue for him. We have almost all our business done and it all fits within the budget and I believe it has been wisely spent. Gavin has refreshed the squad as any manager would do, and we have retained the players we wanted to retain. James McKenna was talking about retiring and one of the first pieces of business Gavin did was to persuade James there was more football left in him. There were a number of clubs after our senior players and we have again kept the ones we wanted to, and that has come down to the ability of the new manager to persuade players in what he is trying to do and that has been very positive.”
With finances restricting the amount of players joining the club it has become increasingly important for Ballinamallard to promote from the youth ranks, and Jeff believes the set up within the club is now ideal to allow the youngsters to step up and prove themselves in the first team. “We will never be able to compete financially with the bigger teams so we will have to continue to develop our own players, and I’m sure that is set to continue,” he said. “Gavin will do things in his way and from what I can understand he has regular meetings planned with the academy and the academy coaches and he already seems to have a good grasp of what is happening in the teams directly below the senior teams. He wants to see what is happening to the teams all the way through and is looking to help and support the mini soccer coaches, which should benefit the whole club. With Gavin’s background in youth development and Whitey coming in as head of youth development and his knowledge of our youth academy, they should complement each other very well and I’m hopeful that will lead to some more young players coming through.”
On the pitch the first test of the new manager and the team will come when Linfield visit Ferney Park on Saturday. The Mallards could not have asked for a tougher test in their opening fixture, but the Chairman is hopeful that they can spring a surprise. “We have never beaten Linfield at home, so there is no pressure on the manager or the team,” said Jeff. “The public will be making Linfield favourites to win but our players will want to give it their best. They are possibly the biggest team in the league in terms of resources and squad size, and probably ability as well now with the likes of Roy Carroll and Sammy Clingan, but as an ex player that would inspire me in training to make sure I’m in the eleven so I don’t think our players will need a lot of motivation. It will be a tough baptism for them as a team. It will be their first competitive fixture and probably a lot of new faces in there for the first time so it’s a very difficult match for us, but it’s also a potential banana skin for Linfield. They will be expecting to beat us as they always have, but I am hoping there will be a big gate and plenty of home supporters to give our team and our new manager plenty of support on the opening day and give us a good start to the season.”