The Big Interview: Kevin Ball

Kevin Ball played 128 games for Pompey, netting four goals in an eight-year stay on the south coast
Kevin Ball played 128 games for Pompey, netting four goals in an eight-year stay on the south coast
Brett Pitman, right, celebrates his equaliser from the penalty spot with Curtis Main Picture: Joe Pepler

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It was a deal both parties wanted to happen but sadly, Pompey couldn’t play ball with either Kevin or Alan.

An emotional reunion appeared to be on the cards for the two Blues namesakes, when Kevin Ball made clear his intentions to leave Premier League Sunderland in 1999, aged 35.

Alan told me he wanted me to come back and play and be on the coaching side – and in time take over from him. That was the lure he gave me which would have been fantastic if it had worked out that way.

Kevin Ball

An attractive financial offer was on the table to play out his twilight years with the Black Cats but the man who established himself as a Fratton favourite in a ‘special’ eight-year stay on the south coast was not content to simply pick up a wage as a substitute.

And 14 years after handing him his first run of games in professional football, Alan Ball, who believed Kevin to be a potential successor as Blues boss, made his intentions clear.

Speaking to The News at the time, he said: ‘I would love to bring him to Portsmouth.

‘I have a fantastic relationship with him and I gave him his first-team debut at Portsmouth.’

While Bobby Campbell may point to an easily-forgettable 1984 2-0 loss at Shrewsbury as Kevin Ball’s first Blues appearance (his only game under Campbell), there is little doubt the tenacious defender made his breakthrough under the World Cup winner, going on to be part of the iconic 1986-87 promotion-winning side.

But with Pompey’s board stalling over a financial package to bring the veteran tough tackler back to Fratton Park – which would have seen him combine playing duties with a coaching position – Fulham stole a march to complete a deal.

Disappointed to miss out on the opportunity to add to his 128 games and four goals for the club, Ball vowed to catch up with his former boss when his own playing days were over for a drink or two.

But having failed to find the opportunity to make good on his promise, the man who now works at Sunderland in a scouting role was left devastated to learn the news of his old boss’ death from a heart attack in 2007.

He said: ‘I have two regrets in football and the first was when I left Sunderland.

‘My contract was coming to a close and they were offering me a new deal.

‘The money would have been great and I would have been in the Premier League, earning while probably not playing a great deal.

‘But that’s not me, I wanted to play football – I didn’t want my career to peter out as a substitute.

‘My agent spoke with Alan Ball, who was in a little bit of trouble in the sense of the team at the time.

‘It was a case of could they raise the funds or do what they needed to do to take me to the club.

‘Alan told me he wanted me to come back and play and be on the coaching side – and in time take over from him.

‘That was the lure he gave me which would have been fantastic if it had worked out that way.

‘But Pompey never came up with a concrete deal and unfortunately the block got put on it.

‘I told Alan I appreciated it and he knew how much I would have loved to have played for him again but Fulham came in for me and offered the deal.

‘I told him I was going to talk to them and he said he was really sorry I couldn’t come back.

‘That was a regret.

‘My other biggest regret was I always told Bally that after I finished playing we would meet up and go out for a few drinks.

‘As a player we would have a few beers on the way back from games but you always want to go back and see your former managers and thank them.

‘I’ve had arguments galore with some of them but I had the upmost respect for Alan.

‘I had just had an operation on my back and was lying in the hospital feeling sorry for myself when my wife came to visit and told me Alan Ball had passed away.

‘I was devastated I never had that opportunity.

‘It was my fault – I should have done something about it.’

For Pompey fans, both Balls represent a memory of one of the best-loved sides in Fratton history.

As a young professional learning his way in the game, it was a joy for Kevin to have the opportunity to play alongside a bunch of talented men who were as commited on the pitch as they were off it.

Sometimes, probably too far.

‘I have still got a photograph of us all outside the Pompey Pub on Frogmore Road,’ said Ball.

‘We all look daft as brushes but the one thing that team had was a great affinity with the supporters.

‘Portsmouth fans were demanding of the team and wanted them to do their best.

‘Having gone close a couple of times you could also argue that to actually finally get there showed a tremendous amount of resilience.

‘There were some characters within the team – they were nuts.

‘I spoke to Kevin Dillon recently and had five minutes about how the two of us had a scrap at a party.

‘Micky Kennedy also threatened to break my neck in training once because I had a go at him for kicking Paul Wood.

‘I thought I’d better be quiet!

‘The stupid thing is it was not out of malice or anything, it was just us all being lads.

‘And I bet if I looked in the loft I would find my Gremlins shirt we had done for the Christmas party.

‘We were called that because we were a mixed up bunch of lads.

‘You couldn’t get away with the things we did nowadays.

‘But the way the game was played and the physicality meant you could get away with it then.

‘That said, there was some tremendous talent in the team with this incredible will to win.

‘It was a great time and when we finally got the promotion it was justifiably deserved for all of the players and especially for Alan Ball and his staff.

‘The supporters also probably wondered whether we were ever going to do it, so it was great for them as well.’

Sadly for the Blues, life in the top flight lasted for just one season with Ball believing a lack of investment meant too much was asked of his team to survive.

He said: ‘When we got promoted, we had good players but we didn’t have enough players to push on. That all comes down to investment and recruitment.

‘If you are going with what you have got you are possibly asking people to overachieve, which for me they can only do over a short term.

‘It’s not something the majority of them will be able to do over a long time, they are just not capable of it.

‘Having worked so hard, the season ended in a damp squib.

‘From my point of view I did really well that year and played 29 times in the top division, receiving player-of-the-year awards.

‘That was a start for me but then obviously Alan left, John Gregory came in and shortly after Frank Burrows took over.

‘That was time for me to leave.

‘When John was at the helm he had just offered me a three-year deal and got sacked a week later, so that scuppered that!

‘Me and Frank never saw eye to eye. I had nothing against him, he was one of the loveliest people you could ever wish to meet.

‘But he felt my qualities weren’t good enough for the team.

‘As a player you just think he’s wrong but I look back now and understand maybe why he thought that.

‘To be fair, he did offer me a new three-year deal in the end.

‘But I felt, as you do when you have been at a club for a long time, the terms I was offered didn’t match what I felt I was worth.

‘So I gambled and chose to leave.

‘I look back on my career and it was massively the right decision.’

Ball, who arrived at the Blues as a teenager following his release from Coventry City, went on to play 394 times for Sunderland, for whom he is now a club legend.

Having served two spells as caretaker boss at the Black Cats and headed up their Academy set-up, Ball is now working for the club in a scouting and ambassadorial role following reconstructive knee surgery – a legacy of 15 operations as a player.

KEVIN BALL ON...

...BEING THE BOSS

Kevin Ball has served two spells as caretaker manager at Sunderland – the first for 10 games in 2006, the second a three-game stint in 2013.

Stepping in as caretaker manager is something I have always enjoyed but I don’t ever see it as: This is my job now.

The chairman is the one who makes the decisions and I fully respect that.

Did it whet my appetite to do it full-time?

If the right opportunity came along then I think every person who has been a manager would have to look at it.

That’s not to say I would definitely take it, though.

We will see, if something comes up that would be great but I am really enjoying what I am doing at the moment.

...VINCE MAKING A SPLASH

When they go on about diving nowadays and how bad it is, Vince Hilaire invented it!

Vince invented diving in the box!

He used to be the only bloke I knew who could trip himself up.

You’d have to watch closely on TV to see how he had done it.

...TYRING TRAINING METHODS

I remember going down to Eastney Barracks and training with the navy PTI blokes.

They would have me running up and down the Barracks with a tyre around my waist and someone pulling me back with a rope.

They were ahead of their time – I was basically doing what they do now for resistance training but without the mod cons.