Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Alan Ball (1945 - 2007)

Sad news reaches us this morning about Alan Ball - member of England's World Cup-winning team of 1966 - who has died at the age of 61.

Ball came to prominence as the youngest member of Alf Ramsey's squad for that campaign. Aged just 21, he was an unknown playing for Blackpool at the time, but Ramsey was aware of his reputation as a hard-working and tenacious midfielder and quickly made him part of the team.

His skill as a great passer of the ball and his stamina for joining attack and defence whenever it was needed was what his colleagues valued most about him. Sir Geoff Hurst today referred to him as the 'Man of the Match' in the 1966 World Cup Final - a true compliment from the man who scored three that day.

His success in the World Cup prompted Everton to sign him for £100,000 - a record at the time - and he soon slotted into a great midfield alongside Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall. Such quality got Everton into the 1968 FA Cup Final, the FA Cup semi-finals the following season and in 1970 won them the League Championship.

A year after England's failed attempt to replicate the success of '66 in the World Cup of 1970, Ball was signed by Arsenal for £220,000 as they continued to search for further glories, but sadly they were to struggle. Despite his best efforts, Arsenal lost the FA Cup Final of 1972 a year after winning the trophy signalling a slow decline for the North London club.

Ball, meanwhile, remained a fixture in Alf Ramsey's England team and even retained his place when Don Revie took charge in 1974. His reputation as a valued member of the team looked certain when he was made captain of the national side for six games in the mid-70's, yet completely without warning Revie dropped Ball and he was never to represent his country again.

In 1976, he joined Southampton and within a year had helped them win promotion to the First Division and the following season won a League Cup runners-up medal after a defeat to Nottingham Forest at Wembley.

Ball's playing career seemed all but over after brief spells in the NASL with Philadelphia Fury and Vancouver Whitecaps, but a coaching career beckoned when in 1980 he returned to his first club, Blackpool. Though heralded as the great hope for the struggling seaside team, a year in charge only perpetuated their plight and Ball couldn't bring them the victories they wanted, but Southampton provided a lifeline yet again.

Lawrie McMenemy was putting together a side based around experience and quality and had already secured the services of Kevin Keegan (returning from Hamburg) and another former England star player, Mick Channon. When Ball was asked to join them at The Dell, he was obviously only too happy to pull on his boots and play alongside them. It was a golden era for McMenemy's side and one that was to give the Saints the stability they needed to stay in the top flight for many years to come.

By 1983, however, Ball's playing career really had come to an end as he moved full time into management. In the years that followed, Ball enjoyed mixed success at different clubs. At Portsmouth a three-year campaign ended with promotion to the First Division but relegation followed a year later along with the end of his contract.

At Southampton, he nurtured the much-overlooked talents of Matthew Le Tissier which in turn helped the whole team avoid the drop from the Premier League. Back at Portsmouth for a second time in 1998, he repeated the same feat and earned himself a reputation as someone who could bring good fortune to a struggling side.

Alan Ball deservedly retired from the game in 1999 having achieved so much for so many, but a chance to look back on his happy memories was shortened as personal tragedy struck his life. In 2004, his wife Leslie died of ovarian cancer having seen his daughter also struggle to overcome the illness in recent years.

Personal thoughts
So what do I remember about Alan Ball? A lot of things, actually. Obviously that trademark shock of red hair, the high-pitched voice, those youthful looks of '66... he was one of the first players to wear white football boots as well, if memory serves.

He also struck me as a man who you didn't want to mess around with but who was friendly and had great integrity. He was a man whose life seemed to revolve around football, and that was what made people respect him.

I remember a few years ago looking back through one of my old Panini sticker albums from 1982 and seeing Alan Ball's face staring back at me on the Southampton pages. It amazed me - here was a man whose image was locked in my brain in black and white thanks to the 1966 World Cup Final, yet here he was still playing in the First Division in 1982.

His appearances on TV recently gave me cause to smile. Last year, he made a commercial for Carlsberg along with many other great players from the past, some of them old team-mates such as Jack and Bobby Charlton. It was a way of showing what an amazing Sunday morning pub team you could make from great stars of the past, and though full of humour, you were left all the happier for seeing so many legendary England players now in their prime - Alan Ball included.

The last time I saw Alan Ball, he was a guest of Sky Sports on the day the new Wembley Stadium opened. He was present to give his thoughts on the new home of English football and was more than happy to give it his seal of approval. Never one to claim that 'things were better in my day', he even confided that he'd like to have had the chance to play in the new stadium himself.

He looked proud, happy and quietly contented, an and that's how I'll remember him.


Flicktokick said...

Alan Ball was hated by the Scots fans. Hated in the footballing sense that is; ie we respected him and feared his ability and tenacity and as a result he was singled out for abuse and boos from the Scotland crowd when our paths crossed.
From interviews I seem to remember the feeling was mutual. I certainly recall him saying he 'hated the jocks' and also that he 'loved the jocks'. He respected the passion in the Scottish support, but that made the opportunity to put one over on the old enemy all the sweeter.

Living in the TVS area in the late 80's I was lucky enough to see The Channon and Ball Video Show in which the two ex-Southampton and England legends watched old matches before discussing them, with frequent mentions of 'character' etc. Throughout Ball's passion for the game shone through and gave me a greater feeling of respect for our old foe.

He was truly a great figure from the British game, a fact that has to be recognised irrespective your partisan allegiances.

Chris said...

Absolutely and thanks for those excellent words, FlicktoKick.

I noticed one or two other Scotland fans were leaving compliments on the BBC Sport website, going to prove that he played the game well and attracted many fans as a result.


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