Alan Ball and Pompey '“ why they were a match made in heaven and his memory must live onÂ

Alan Ball will always be synonymous with English football's greatest day '“ July 30, 1966. He was the youngest member of the team.

Friday, 21st September 2018, 4:29 pm
Updated Saturday, 22nd September 2018, 6:20 am
Alan Ball's iconic Pompey speech remains part of Fratton Park folklore

The World Cup final '“ generally accepted as the pinnacle of any footballer's life '“ represented just his 14th cap.

He was only 21 at the time, with most of his playing career ahead of him and (at least) 52 years of hurt about to start for the rest of us.

In a way, though, his role in the 4-2 win against West Germany was only Ball's second greatest achievement. With my tongue only slightly tucked into my cheek, I reckon his first remains the fact he is fondly remembered, lovingly even, by both Pompey AND Saints supporters.

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Alan Ball with his Pompey summer captures in August 1987

I cannot think of anyone else who enjoys such a privilege. Certainly not the only other (non caretaker) boss who has managed both clubs '“ a certain H Redknapp Esq.

Some players have worn both the blue of Portsmouth and the red and white of Southampton without being jeered mercilessly for their connections with the 'other' club at the end of the M27 '“ Peter Crouch, Bobby Stokes and Barry Horne spring to mind.

Indeed, Crouch was recently back in Portsmouth signing copies of his autobiography. Who'd have thought that in January 2005 when he scored Saints' last minute FA Cup winner against Pompey at St Mary's?

Realistically, however, no-one can hold a candle to Alan Ball. Still adored by Pompey fans for taking them back into the top flight in 1987, and then saving the club from relegation to the third division 11 years later. And still loved by the Saints fans who remember him captaining their club back to the top flight in 1978, and for getting the best out of the mercurial Matt Le Tissier during his later time as Dell boss.

Alan Ball on his second stint as Pompey manager in 1998

An event scheduled for this week '“ Remembering Bally at the Kings Theatre in Southsea '“promised a wonderful nostalgia-fest for Pompey supporters with some of Ball's former Blues stars recalling a succession of colourful anecdotes.

Disappointingly, it was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. A huge shame, for there are many cracking Ball-related tales which deserve as wide an audience as possible.

Has any manager, in English football history, ever assembled a squad which so embraced the culture of the town or city they represented as Ball did at Pompey in the mid 1980s?

The team were seemingly chiselled out of the same rock that legions of the Fratton Park faithful believed they had come from.

Pompey manager Alan Ball, right, celebrating the club's 1986-87 promotion-winning season, with chairman John Deacon.

Tough, determined, hard-working, passionate, community-spirited, with a fondness for a pint or two (or more '“ okay, many more) '“ and a healthy degree of insularity and tribalism with regards to welcoming 'outsiders' '“ ie, rival football teams and fans '“ to Portsea Island.

Many Pompey fans of the time would have seen themselves described in those words '“some no doubt still do '“ and Ball pieced together a mirror image squad which had the added ability of being able to play football to a high level.

The names still resonate to thousands of Pompey fans '“ Billy Gilbert, Mick Tait, Kevin Dillon, Noel Blake, Mick Kennedy, Micky Quinn, Vince Hilaire. Hard men, some of them. Characters one and all.

Ball could well have learnt from his former Saints boss, Lawrie McMenemy, who regularly used two phrases when describing his players. 'You need street cleaners as well as violinists' was one and 'I don't mind rascals so long as they're not villains' the other.

The first phrase referred to the fact that all successful teams need unsung heroes as well as the ones who regularly hog the headlines, the strikers and the goalkeepers.

The second referred to the fact that McMenemy didn't mind players who were hard to manage, and who liked a pint (or several) on a day off, so long as they could be relied upon to do the business on a match-day and who didn't disrupt dressing room harmony. Rascals were fine, indulged even, but villains weren't tolerated.

Ball's mid-80s Pompey teams were no doubt full of rascals, who liked a beer (and regularly).

But that only helped to bring the squad together, to create that siege mentality spirit that outsiders still believe Portsmouth people possess.

That spirit helped turn Fratton Park into a fortress '“ 17 wins in 21 games, for example, during the 1986/87 Second Division promotion season.

McMenemy would no doubt have approved of his great friend's methods during those (heady?) pre-sports science days ....

Ball's ability to man-manage was again apparent when he returned to Portsmouth in 1998. As Neil Allen wrote in The News last weekend, his motivational speech to a squad threatened with relegation '“ 'People went to war from this city' '“ has gone down in Fratton Park folklore.

Pompey stayed up on the back of his passion.

And therein lies an anomaly. Take the Portsmouth achievements out of his CV, and Alan Ball's managerial career never hit any major heights.

He managed Blackpool, Pompey, Stoke, Exeter, Saints, Manchester City and Pompey again, yet 1986/87 was his sole promotion-winning season.

There were no cups either.

He was sacked at Blackpool in 1980/81, with the club heading for relegation; he was so hated by Stoke fans that someone chucked a cup of hot tea over him when he managed Exeter; he suffered Premier League relegation at Manchester City.

The headiest days of Ball's managerial career, like his playing days, came fairly early on.

Ball had left Saints at the end of the 1994/95 season after guiding the club to 10th place '“ at the time their highest ever Premier League position, and one they only bettered once before 2014.

He hadn't really wanted to go, but was annoyed that the chairman Guy Askham had given City '“ whose then chairman Francis Lee was Ball's former England colleague '“ permission to speak to him.

He might have been born in Lancashire, but Ball's heart belonged on the south coast from the day he joined Saints in 1976.

He loved Portsmouth Football Club and he loved Southampton Football Club, and not many people can say that. I know he did love both too, because I spent two years ghost-writing his weekly column for the Southampton-based Southern Daily Echo newspaper between 2003-2005.

I have rarely enjoyed my job more than when I was talking football with Ball.

His passion for the game still burned strong '“ his passion for all things England burned even stronger, I've never known a more passionate England fan '“ and he still retained a childlike enthusiasm for Pompey and Saints. He wanted both to succeed so much.

When I was his ghost-writer he had been out of the game for a few years, since being sacked by Milan Mandaric in 1999.

I was always amazed how a man with so much experience, so much knowledge, so much passion, so much to offer, was on the outside of the football bubble looking in (and being paid a pittance by the Echo, just £50 a week, to talk about it).

He said he liked it that way, though; he liked not being involved at a professional level anymore.

Ball regularly used to rant about the increasing advances of player power, of the rise of agents (who he detested with a vengeance), about players' huge salaries, about how managers' influence was being eroded by all the factors just mentioned.

Bear in mind, this was the early noughties. God knows what he would have made about football these days, with £200m players and salaries of hundreds of thousands of pounds a week.

He always said every football manager should be given three years to get it right. Not many chairmen '“ or fans, for that matter '“ in recent years would agree with him.

Speaking regularly to Ball, listening to his views, his mantras and his anecdotes, I was grateful to be afforded an insight into the psyche of the great man.

And Alan Ball WAS a great man. A footballing legend, yes of course, but far more than that.

When he managed my hometown club, Exeter City, he used to go and watch the youth team on a Sunday morning. Now and again, some friends of mine did the same '“ and now and again they'd get chatting to Ball.

Before they knew it, they'd be down the pub with him and then back to his house for some food ('Lesley won't mind'). How many professional football managers would ever do that with some of their club's fans? That one anecdote sums up Alan Ball as a person.

He regularly used to hold court in the sponsors/VPs lounges after Exeter home games, just happy to chat football, to talk up the kids in our youth team.

I remember in early 1993 he was waxing lyrical about a 16-year-old, Martin Phillips. Within a few years he'd signed him for Manchester City, predicting Phillips would be England's first £10m footballer.

He wasn't, and Ball later signed him again for Pompey for £100,000 in the summer of 1998.

Ball was still writing for the Echo when he passed away in April 2007 after suffering a heart attack at his Warsash home.

I covered his funeral at Winchester Cathedral for the Echo. It was strange to see grown men, some wearing the Pompey blue, some the Saints red and white, standing silently together, tears in their eyes, all with their own memories.

Arch rivals, fierce rivals, but temporarily yoked together '“ because of Alan Ball. That is a rum gift to have and Ball possessed it, even in the after-life.

Ball's mid-80s Pompey team deserve to be remembered, their on and off-field achievements and escapades passed down to new generations.

Because not only were Ball's team hewn from the same rock as some of the supporters, they were hewn from the same rock as their manager.

The team he regularly chose to represent Portsmouth Football Club embodied many of the attributes he no doubt saw in himself as a player.

That's why future generations of Pompey supporters must be told about the mid-80s. They will learn about passion, commitment, team spirit and Fratton Park as a fortress (and lots of drinking).

But they will also learn about Alan Ball, and as a result his spirit and his legend will live on.