If there's such a thing as a modern day treasure trove, it's probably not going to be a trunk in an attic but in a rather more prosaic form: the computer hard drive.
Searching through the depths of my iMac the other day for an old piece of work so that I could corroborate a new piece, I stumbled across an interview I'd carried out with Alan Ball in the summer of 2005 for the Observer Sport Monthly. It was for a regular feature, called Triumph and Despair; where a sporting personality talks about their career high points and life low points. I spoke to Ball on a number of occasions but I couldn't ever remember seeing this in print. A search of the Guardian website confirmed that inkling.
At the time I was in my mid-twenties and trying to forge a career in journalism while also reconciling myself to the reality that I was a nobody in a fiercely competitive industry. To a nervous and slightly disillusioned novice, Alan was of great encouragement. I can't begin to emphasize how nerve-wracking it can be to make (often) unsolicited calls to a very famous person when you're an unknown yourself, but he was always the model of generosity and decorum, pleased to be asked for an opinion or a memory. Nothing was ever too much for him. He even gave me his home number because it had a better line.
I've no idea why this piece never went into the magazine. It may well have been overlooked because, a few days after we spoke, London was awarded the 2012 Olympics and the news focus went to England's next sporting mega event rather than its last one. Nine months later, Ball passed away and the story was forgotten about — until now.
And so, for the first time, here's Alan in his own words — as told to me in July 2005.
My father, Alan Ball senior, had been a journeyman player in the post-war years. I think the pinnacle of his career was probably playing for Birmingham Reserves. People have told me he was an uncompromising wing-half, but didn't have much pace. He was probably a better coach than he was a player, and had stints in charge at Preston and Halifax. No player was influenced more by my Dad than me. From as far back as I can remember, he drove me towards the talent he had never quite had as a footballer himself. He was my mentor, coach, adviser, critic and caring father.
I was always small and light. I knew I had the ability to make it as a professional footballer but, when I was 15 and other lads were getting apprenticeship deals, I had trials at Wolves and Bolton and was turned down because of my size. Bill Ridding, the Bolton manager, even told me that the only apprenticeship I'd get was as a jockey.
Blackpool took a chance on me though and I became a pro when I was 17. Three months later, I made my full debut against Liverpool at Anfield. There were 57,000 people there; I'd previously only played in front of a few hundred for the reserves! I was playing on the right, in place of Stanley Matthews, who was injured. Jimmy Armfield, who was England captain, was right back. We won 2-1, a great win and the start of Anfield being a special ground for me.
I'd vowed to my Dad that I'd be in the England team by the time I was 20. I wasn't cocky, just ambitious, but I made it with three days to spare, playing the first of 72 internationals against Yugoslavia in Belgrade in May 1965. I did okay but, as Alf Ramsey's team evolved into a 4-3-3 formation, I started to become a regular.
When the World Cup was hosted in England a year later, I was in the starting eleven for the first game, against Uruguay. The whole country had been geared up for a football carnival, but it was a miserable match — a goalless draw — and everyone felt let down. Alf changed things around for the next match against Mexico, bringing in Martin Peters and Terry Paine but leaving me out. We won 2-0; as we did with our last group match against France, but again, I'd been left out.
The whole country had been struck by World Cup fever, but I was miserable, moping around. As there were no substitutes then, I couldn't even picture how I'd get a way back into the team unless someone got an injury. On the eve of the quarter-final against Argentina, Alf asked me why I was so low. I told him I was disappointed at being left out after I felt I'd done reasonably well in the first match. He told me to brighten up as I had a role to play the next day — on the right side of midfield. Suddenly I was happy again.
The match was a real dogfight. I was up against the Argentine left-back, Marzolini, a world-class player, but I loved every second of it. It was the game when Rattin, their captain, got sent off and wouldn't leave the pitch. We won with a Hurst header — the only real bit of football played all game — and were into the semi with Portugal. By then, we were full of confidence and we beat Portugal 2-1 in a wonderful flowing game.
And then, of course was the World Cup Final with West Germany.
After the World Cup, I left Blackpool and joined Everton for £110,000. It was the first six-figure deal between two British clubs, but I fitted right in. They used to call the midfield — myself, Colin Harvey, and Howard Kendall — the ‘holy trinity'. We were a great side, and played the kind of football that befitted the club's nickname — The School of Science.
There were three great mysteries about Everton. The first was that we never won more with that great team. (During Ball's five years at Goodison Park, Everton won the 1970 League Championship, and finished runners-up in the 1968 FA Cup Final.) The second was that Harvey and Kendall never got the international recognition they deserved. (Harvey got one cap; Kendall was regarded as the finest player to ever go uncapped by England.) The third was when Harry Catterick sold me to Arsenal in December 1971.
I never wanted to leave Goodison and was gutted when Catterick sold me. I felt like I'd been used and dumped to make a quick profit, and that Catterick — who was always a cold, ruthless man — had broken up a great side too quickly. I had six good years at Arsenal before joining Southampton. I carried on playing for England until 1975 and also played in the US, which I loved. I hung up my boots in 1983 after 20 years at the top — not a bad record is it?
When I gave up playing, I knew right away that I wanted to follow my dad's footsteps and go into management. I had a spells in charge at Blackpool, Stoke, Exeter, Southampton, Manchester City and a couple of spells at Portsmouth. Some people say I was a bad manager, because I never had a record like Alex Ferguson, but that annoys me. I always did my best and had some great times. I took Portsmouth up to the old First Division; was brought in as a troubleshooter on a couple occasions and kept teams up; and I discovered players like Neil Webb, Mark Hateley and Lee Dixon.
I was disappointed that Southampton let Man City come in for me in 1996 and, as everyone knows, I didn't have the happiest of times there. By the time I left City, I'd had enough of management, enough of average players thinking they were superstars. I had one last crack with Portsmouth in 1999, just after Milan Mandaric took over, but my heart wasn't really in it. Football had given me a lot, but it had taken a lot out of me as well. I'd had enough.
I'll never forget the dark day in March 2001, when our family's lives changed forever. It was a horrid day, cold and raining, and I had been playing in a charity golf day in Surrey and was driving back home to our village over the Hampshire border. I was finished with football by then — it had been three years since I'd left Manchester City, and I was enjoying retirement, playing golf and spending more time with my wife, Lesley, my three grown-up children — Mandy, Keely and Jimmy — and our precious grandson, Louie. Then the mobile rang. It was Lesley, and I knew straight away that there was a problem. Mandy had been due for a biopsy on a small lump she had found in her breast, and I knew from the minute that the phone rang something was up. ‘Alan, we've got a problem,' said Lesley. ‘They think it's cancer.' I drove like a maniac down the M3 straight to Mandy's place and found a heartbroken young couple with their baby boy, and my wife with a desolate look on her face. This was my daughter, my little girl. How does anyone handle that?
Weirdly, that same day, Lesley had felt a pain in her groin. She'd thought nothing of it, and said nothing. Over the following couple of months, while Mandy was undergoing debilitating and arduous chemotherapy sessions — supported every step of the way by her mam — these pains in Lesley's groin got worse. Unknown to me, she had booked in to see a specialist at the Nuffield Hospital at the start of May 2001. She was told there might be a serious problem and that she should have a hysterectomy. All the while, she played things down, keeping positive and trying not to cause further worry for the family. I didn't know what to think. I did not, at the time suspect anything more serious — life couldn't be that cruel, could it?
But later on that May, the horrible news came out. Lesley had Ovarian cancer, and like Mandy would have to undergo chemo. I could not take it in, I was devastated, absolutely devastated.
It was the biggest battle of our lives. Cancer haunts and stalks. It is with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and affects every part of your life. For two and a half years, I watched my daughter and wife battle against the disease. Mandy's chemo worked. After months of pain and worry, she got the all clear, and is as fit and healthy as she's ever been. In March 2003 she ran the London marathon with Jimmy for the Bobby Moore Cancer Research Fund.
Lesley didn't get better though. We did everything possible, kept our fingers crossed and lived life to the fullest. We went on long holidays — to Australia and the Caribbean. We took the grandkids to Lapland. Lesley was braver than any footballer I ever saw. But it wasn't enough to beat the cancer. She passed away on Sunday 16 May 2004. No man could have asked for a better wife, no child a better mother. We all miss her very much.
With thanks to Alan's son, Jimmy, for giving the Ball Family's consent for this to be posthumously published.
Reader Comments (49)
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1 Posted 18/05/2018 at 16:26:02
The big "C" is frightening enough when you have it yourself and don't know how it's going to go, but for you wife and daughter to have it?
Still feel sad at Bally's passing as I do at Howard's.
2 Posted 18/05/2018 at 16:43:06
Many great memories growing up and the plan to send all his memorabilia to Harry Catterick with the words "Lest we forget". Dark day when he was sold.
3 Posted 18/05/2018 at 16:51:03
4 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:05:03
5 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:09:33
6 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:11:20
7 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:14:42
8 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:14:58
This season came close with each game Allardyce managed against a top-six team.
9 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:19:35
In some respects he had the same attitude to the game as Tim Cahill had, he simply hated getting beat, and woe betide any team mate who failed to give 100%, he was right on their case.
At the time, he WAS Mr Everton. Rumours abounded on Merseyside just why he left, unless you spoke to Harry Catterick at the time, I guess we'll never know the real reason.
At the time, nearly all footballer's on Merseyside lived in either Formby or Maghull, and I remember in about 1970, he was parked in a World Cup sponsored white Ford Corsair on Wango Lane in Aintree, probably on his way home from Bellefield.
Time plays it's own tricks on your mind, I'd have never have guessed he played for Arsenal longer than he did for his beloved blues.
Ok, tin hat time now, was he best player I ever saw play for Everton?, no, I think Rooney was a better technical player, certainly as a raw 16 year old.
Was he the most loved and influential player I have ever seen in an Everton shirt, resoundingly YES.
Like Cahill, he seemed to reserve his best performances when we played our lovable neighbors across the park. He was absolutely fearless when he played against them, whether at Goodison or Anfield. I will NEVER forget his winner against them in the FA Cup when the match was screened on large screens at Anfield.
On that night, he achieved legendary status. What a man.
10 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:20:05
Bally was the perfect example and maybe Rooney was also. There are arguably others of course but the Seventies league winning side was destined for greater things.
There is always speculation surrounding these things and the players involved are probably reluctant to say why at the time as it could affect their future careers with other clubs etc.
What went wrong with Barklay and what really happened between Koeman and Niasse are some questions we may have. Something or nothing at all ?
In retrospect we all know Alan Ball was a tremendous player and had many years left in him much to Everton's dismay.
11 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:22:26
I loved Bally - the Holy Trinity will live on and on in the hearts of Evertonians.
12 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:38:04
For those of us old enough to remember, Alan Ball was plainly and simply Mr Everton. As with Ron #8, the day we sold him ranks as the worst in my life as an Evertonian. Totally irrational and bemusing.
In October 1975 - I was living in London - I went to Highbury to watch Arsenal v Man. City. Do you want to know why? Ball was playing for the Gunners and Joe Royle for City. A trip down Memory Lane. And they both played very well, each of them scoring a goal (it finished 3-2 to City, and Rodney Marsh was probably the best player on the pitch).
Thank you very much for sharing, James.
13 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:48:01
If you read Alan Ball's book he stated that Everton was his home and when Catterick called him in and told him he was selling him to Arsenal he was in tears. He phoned his Dad and told him and he said to him "they don't want you son you'll have to go" he was absolutely devastated like most of us.
14 Posted 18/05/2018 at 17:50:09
Poignant and painful to read, a fabulous player, I think in his first season I saw every game he played in at home, but fame is no shield to life, I hope his life is an inspiration to both players and supporters, to live a life the best way he can.
15 Posted 18/05/2018 at 18:01:16
Quite simply the best footballer to pull on the blue shirt for Everton in my lifetime. Like Ron Marr, the day he was sold was - by a country mile - my saddest ever day as a Blue.
Loved him to bits as a player, a man and - as James reports - a doting family man.
Nice to read and see your focus on the human side, rather than focussing on his football history. Well done James. And thanks to Bally's family for allowing it to enter the public domain.
16 Posted 18/05/2018 at 18:16:08
17 Posted 18/05/2018 at 18:28:02
Who recalls the free magazine that would be given away free, stapled inside the match day programme, 'The Football League Review' back in the day?
On the cover of one was a photo to the two Alan Balls, snr. and jnr., playing chess. On the inside was an article on an interview with the two.
The journo opened his piece by explaining the cover photo: "The photographer thought to stage a photo of father and son playing chess, but they argued so much over the positioning of the pieces on the board that they started a proper game...and that is the photo the photograph took."
A wee inkling into where Bally got his combative nature from and the endearing relationship 'twixt father and son.
18 Posted 18/05/2018 at 18:31:22
Easily the best and most cherished BLUE - any real supporter was fortunate to see.
19 Posted 18/05/2018 at 19:29:55
The passion for the game was exemplified by Bally... committed and courageous.
Yes, there was a bit of that in Cahill... but my schoolboy memories are of our Ginger Terrier... My love of the game and Everton FC comes from those times and those players.
God bless you, Alan Ball.
20 Posted 18/05/2018 at 19:32:08
I often think back to that day, and I thought it at the time tbh, as being the day that we, as a club, began to accept being second best, mediocre, also-rans. Bally was our leader, our best player, our inspiration (we all had the number 8 shirt) and his leaving ripped the heart and soul out of the club never to replaced.
21 Posted 18/05/2018 at 19:54:39
My son knew why he was wearing Number 8 all those years, but he could never appreciate the pleasure it gave me watching him get stuck in with that number on the back of his blue shirt.
22 Posted 18/05/2018 at 20:00:04
In 1970 just before the World Cup England beat Belgium 1-3 at their place, Bally scoring twice. The Belgian manager said at the end, "It's hard enough trying to beat England, but to have to beat England AND Alan Ball is like playing two teams. It is impossible!" Said it all really.
23 Posted 18/05/2018 at 20:15:55
True legend of the English game, sadly missed.
24 Posted 18/05/2018 at 21:18:36
Then we signed Alan Ball. He scored the only goal on his debut at Fulham. Then he tore the rs to bits at Goodison. Scored twice. 3-1. Just imagine that.
25 Posted 18/05/2018 at 21:58:52
I remember Goodison Road the Saturday after Alan was sold, nobody talking about the match starting later but about the player we had lost.
Peter Mills gets it so right about the two Liverpool games within a few weeks of each other, They humiliated us in the charity shield game, miles better, then in the league game we did the same to them3-1 thanks to Bally. R I P Alan.
26 Posted 18/05/2018 at 23:22:42
I saw both those Derby games and Ball made us, on his own it seemed, a better team, I think the bones were there and he just led by example.
I thought Rooney would do the same, but no. Ball for me, he did what Rooney had the potential for. It was a privilege to see him and that team play...I doubt we'll see the like again.
27 Posted 18/05/2018 at 23:51:52
And that will never change.
I simply couldn't take my eyes off him.
Even that pic of him running on makes my heart beat a little faster.
He was..the greatest.
28 Posted 19/05/2018 at 00:18:10
Eugene, by the way, don't think that making a cameo appearance and fucking off is okay. I don't think I am alone in wondering what your views are on the last six months.
29 Posted 19/05/2018 at 00:34:09
Pity that there is nobody like him around at Everton now.
He was also very popular around the world because of the WC.
30 Posted 19/05/2018 at 01:36:51
I remember my dad and I went to a charity match at the old tower ground in New Brighton: All Stars 11 vs Football 11, I think that was it but my memory is cloudy and if anyone else can remember it, please feel free to correct it.
Anyway, during half-time, my dad and I were standing waiting to get a cuppa when the man standing next to me said, "Hello youngster, you enjoying the game?" in his squeaky type voice. He spoke to me for about 5 minutes; when we walked away, my dad asked me if I knew who I was talking to? I said "No."
Needless to say, it was Mr Alan Ball! Today I still get goose bumps thinking about it. A great man.
ps: My favourite Everton player: Alex Young.
31 Posted 19/05/2018 at 03:52:50
32 Posted 19/05/2018 at 09:24:41
There were two for me AB & the Golden Vision.
33 Posted 19/05/2018 at 09:25:21
34 Posted 19/05/2018 at 10:22:14
35 Posted 19/05/2018 at 11:42:29
36 Posted 19/05/2018 at 16:13:15
37 Posted 19/05/2018 at 21:15:40
38 Posted 19/05/2018 at 22:31:57
39 Posted 20/05/2018 at 09:51:16
Geoff at 37 â€“ yes, I did and loved wearing them and wearing them out.
What a very poignant article. So sad how life can treat people. He and his wife deserved so much better.
40 Posted 21/05/2018 at 10:42:23
On City Road, where it goes over the railway (we used to call it 'the Brew'), was painted on the wall in thick white paint the name 'ALAN BALL'. It stood there for years, long after he'd left us.
I never saw him play for the Blues but he was my Dad's idol, so much so that me and my brother used to think that his full name was 'Alan Ball Brilliant'.
41 Posted 21/05/2018 at 13:19:18
Bally was before my time but even the way the redshite eulogised about him showed he must have been some player. We could do with another one of him now.
42 Posted 21/05/2018 at 16:04:16
There and then it sunk in: Alan Ball. He gave us life. I will always remember that feeling. Bally, lad â€” many many thanks.
43 Posted 21/05/2018 at 18:40:54
Years later, I was playing non-league for John Roberts who played with him at Arsenal so, any chance I got, I'd ask him about Bally. He said he was the best one-touch passer of the ball he'd ever played with and a few moves ahead of others and a real character... sometimes nuts! Also, a good goal scorer from midfield. Look up his goals versus appearances for Everton â€“ a striker would be pleased with them.
Then, years later, I was working in the leisure industry and, if I went to a club or hotel who had guest speakers on, I'd ask them if they'd had Alan Ball on. To a man they said one of the most passionate and inspirational. You could hear a pin drop when he spoke. Real shame there is very little footage of him playing for the Blues.
44 Posted 22/05/2018 at 12:47:04
One morning, I went up to buy my newspaper as normal but unusually I started to read it from the front rather than from the back page as I strolled back to the caravan. When I eventually turned the paper over I saw the headlines: "Everton sign Ball"!!
Well I couldn't help myself I shouted "yes"! and ran back to the caravan to tell my Evertonian mates.
I've never forgotten the joy I felt that day or the despair when he was sold. It sickens me though that the club of greats like Ball, Young, Wilson, Labby, Kendall and Harvey is tainted by the name of Allardyce. How did it come to this?
45 Posted 22/05/2018 at 15:45:38
There's a framed picture of the great man on the wall of the Raven pub in Waterloo, wearing his famous white boots but I also noticed the socks... a kinda pale Amber colour?
Blue shirts, white shorts, amber socks... I likes that!
46 Posted 22/05/2018 at 18:26:44
48 Posted 28/05/2018 at 21:52:06
49 Posted 29/05/2018 at 18:27:32
50 Posted 09/06/2018 at 09:23:33
One of the ultimate professionals was Alan Ball. My best player at Everton, ever. He wore our Royal Blue jersey with such pride. He covered every blade of grass. He was good for loads of goals too. Never seen him dive or roll around after being clogged by some thug.
Older generation always say "in our day" alas it is true. Honesty was still in the game. No swarming around referees, no sliding on your knees or bellies. Alan Ball never pulled out of a tackle and bollocked anyone who did, squeakily.
Who's the greatest of them all, little curly Alan Ball. love that man. Should have been Harry Catterick leaving Everton â€“ not Bally.
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