From humble beginnings to an organisation admired in youth footballing circles throughout Northern Ireland and further afield.
The rise of Ballymena United Youth Academy – and its hugely respected forerunner Cullybackey Blues – has been a major part of the borough’s sporting fabric over close to three decades.
From youngsters taking their first steps in the game at the age of five at the club’s mini soccer set-up, to those progressing through the club’s various age groups to go on to play at higher levels as adults, it’s a huge undertaking for the Youth Academy.
It’s all a far cry from when Cullybackey Blues began life back in 1971 as an adult team, playing in the Ballymena Saturday Morning League.
The youth structure started in 1983 in order to provide a steady stream of young players for the adult side – however, the youth set-up eventually became so successful that club officials decided to give it the full focus of their attention.
The name of Cullybackey Blues became synonymous with success in youth footballing circles in Northern Ireland, while teams representing the club also took part in competitions in the UK and further afield.
At the same time, a number of players went on to forge careers at Irish League level and – for a select few – in the professional game in England or Scotland and their achievements are recorded elsewhere on this website.
There had already been links between Cullybackey Blues and local Irish League club Ballymena United through then United chairman Leonard Wiseman, who had also been a key figure in the rise of Cullybackey Blues.
And those connections were formalised in 1991 when then Ballymena United boss Jim Hagan was instrumental in a merger between the sides which saw Blues’ under-18 side compete under the name of Ballymena United Thirds, under the managership of Finlay White.
The club’s younger sides continued to play under the name of Cullybackey Blues until 2001 when then Showgrounds first team manager Kenny Shiels – currently taking the Northern Ireland ladies’ team to new heights - helped oversee the transition of all Cullybackey Blues sides to playing under the Ballymena United banner.
The past two decades have seen hundreds of youngsters play in the sky blue shirt, representing the club in a number of competitions including the Harry Gregg Youth League, the Lisburn Youth League and the acclaimed National League, while also taking part in various tournaments outside of this country.
The hard work of the Youth Academy has borne fruit not only in producing players who have gone on to play at senior level, but the parent club has also benefited from the Youth Academy’s links with Bolton Wanderers, most notably in 2002 when the Trotters – then a Premier League side managed by Sam Allardyce – played Ballymena at the Showgrounds to mark the opening of the grandstand at the Warden Street venue.
While the landscape of football at many levels has changed beyond recognition in recent years, Ballymena United Youth Academy continues to adhere to the principles that were put in place by Cullybackey Blues all those years ago.
They include not only improving players’ technical skills as footballers but also providing them with opportunities to grow on a personal basis by developing the players’ sense of self esteem, motivation and desire to learn under the tutelage of fully qualified coaches, backed up by hard-working volunteers in a number of behind-the-scenes rolls.