Ex-Sunderland skipper Kevin Ball: I was an absolute disgrace - then Portsmouth and those Gremlins gave me the best footballing education

Kevin Ball was otherwise engaged, busy on another call when his old friend attempted to make contact.

Thursday, 1st July 2021, 6:00 pm
Kevin Ball (second left) joins Pompey team-mates Noel Blake, Mick Kennedy, Mick Quinn, physio John Dickens and Kevin O’Callaghan celebrating promotion to the First Division in May 1987

Perhaps the incoming Kevin Dillon could sense the subject matter, the issue of the infamous Gremlins never straying far from fellow members’ marches down memory lane.

For somebody adopted by Wearsiders and bestowed Sunderland legendary status, Ball’s playing days were Pompey born and bred.

It’s an eight-year south-coast association he credits with saving a football career which eventually totalled 630 games and 34 goals.

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By Ball’s own admission, he had been ‘an absolute disgrace’ as a Coventry apprentice, culminating in being shown the door at the age of 17 in August 1982.

Fratton Park offered a second chance, the opportunity to rebuild.

Reared by the likes of Mick Kennedy, Noel Blake, Billy Gilbert and, of course, Dillon, the protege rose to skipper the Blues long after their departures.

And Ball remains forever grateful to those who ushered a once homesick boy from Hastings along the path to success.

Kevin Ball emerged from the youth team to make 126 appearances for Pompey during eight years at Fratton Park

‘Honestly, I loved my time at Pompey, absolutely loved it,’ Ball told The News.

‘Kevin Dillon has tried to ring while on this call. I still speak to Dill because he lives in the North East. What a character by the way, we still laugh to this day when I see him.

‘It was awesome growing up around them, I couldn’t have asked for a better time. They weren’t called The Gremlins for nothing!

‘I was a boy at Coventry, simple as. When I went to Pompey, I became a man. It was my second chance and I knew I couldn’t mess this one up.

Sunderland's Kevin Ball pursues Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

‘A year earlier, I was a 16-year-old from Hastings who arrived at this top-flight team in Coventry City. Some lads can do it, some can’t – and I found it very hard.

‘Those opening five months almost killed my career. I missed home, missed my family, missed my girlfriend, missed the routine. In addition, suddenly things of a higher level are being asked of you on a daily basis.

‘There was that insecurity, that level of “Do I belong here?” which took over for a period of time.

‘I was a disgrace when I look back, an absolute disgrace. I have no qualms admitting that because that’s what helped me to become what I was.

Kevin Ball was Sunderland's caretaker boss when he returned to Fratton Park in Premier League action in April 2006. Picture: Steve Reid

‘Some of the stuff I used to do. As an apprentice, I would have to do jobs, yet instead I’d go and hide. “I’m not doing them”.

‘Also in the youth team was Tommy Campbell, who was from Tilbury, Essex, and we used to escape from Coventry at weekends. We were told we couldn’t go home, so climbed out of the window.

‘On one occasion, I left Coventry at 5pm on the Friday, got home at 10pm – and then caught the train back at 6am the following day in case the youth coach, John Sillett, saw I wasn’t in bed.

‘John was a lovely man, hard but cared about me. He once caught me – as punishment all the lads had their weekend off taken away.

‘We could only go home once every six weeks, now I had to face them. John told me I was part of a team, if you don’t do your job, they all suffer. What a great lesson.

‘Honestly, some of the things I did were ridiculous. It was insecurity, immaturity. Am I good enough? Am I worthy? It was just down to me.

Kevin Ball (right) is now an ambassador for Sunderland, although is currently on furlough. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images

‘I remember going home for Christmas and, when I got off the train, told my dad “I ain’t going back”. My dad replied “We’ll see about that”.

‘That was the turning point. Over that Christmas, I remembered that I’d always wanted to be a footballer. I had to buckle down – and I did.

‘Later that season, John Sillett intimated I was getting a contract. Then I went to see Colin Dobson, who was in charge, who told me I wasn’t.

‘Colin probably looked at me, remembered the first six months and thought “I’m not sure I want to work with him because of his attitude”. I understand that, but it wasn’t about attitude, it was an insecurity thing.

‘I would watch the lads doing extra training with Dobbo and think “Creeps”. I never realised that they were the ones improving – not me. Ultimately, throughout my career I did extra work.

‘When Coventry released me I couldn’t wait to go home, hand on heart. I danced to the train station. I was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do about it.

‘Then Pompey came in for me, I was lucky. That period between being released and getting a new club has to be short, the longer you leave it the harder it will be.

‘You either go to Pompey and give it a go – or you go back home and stay there.’

Approached by the Blues’ youth recruitment officer Dave Hurst, Ball initially arrived at Fratton Park on a month-long trial.

Having impressed, he was handed non-contract forms and entered the youth team as a second-year scholar.

Barely a month after his 19th birthday, Ball was granted his first-team debut by manager Bobby Campbell in a 2-0 defeat at Shrewsbury in January 1984.

Over the next seven seasons he gradually established himself as a regular, either at centre-half or at the heart of Pompey’s midfield, eventually rising to the position of captain.

Along the way, he found himself among the youngest members of the infamous Gremlins side under Alan Ball, featuring 22 times in their 1986-87 promotion to the top flight.

‘That was a very tight-knit group of players, yet eclectic, unbelievable characters,’ he added.

‘The minute that lot left, the Cowplain Social Club profits must have gone down through the cellar. That was when football was football and you lived locally.

‘They’d come in the next day and you knew they’d been in Cowplain Social Club the night before. Yet they still trained ridiculously hard.

‘We used to be in awe of them sometimes. How the hell did they do it? I knew I couldn’t.

‘I have to say, Kevin O’Callaghan didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. I thought he was a horrible so-and-so. I would love to meet him again and go “Hey Cally, told you I’d make it”.

‘He had ways of saying things which could upset you if you weren't thick skinned. All I wanted to do was punch him in the head when he was like it.

‘Kev challenged you, he wouldn’t put you down, but he challenged you. Would I want to punch him now? Absolutely not. I’d run him over instead. Just joking!

‘Then there was Mick Kennedy, a massively underrated player. He was a horrible, dirty so-and-so on the pitch, yet a lovely guy off it.

‘When Mick first came to the club, obviously he wanted to make his mark. At the time I regarded myself as a bit of a tough cookie and we clashed in one of his first training sessions.

‘He politely told me he was going to break my neck. I thought “Go on, try it”.

‘When he left to join Bradford, he came up to me, shook my hand and said: “I tried to kick you to death in training. I tried to hurt you as much as possible”.

‘Then he added: “But do you know what? Never once did you whinge, you just gave me it back – and I’ll always love you for that”.

‘I will never forget the way he shook my hand and looked at me. I knew if I ever needed Mick Kennedy, I could pick up a phone. I was devastated when he died.

‘He was a top footballer, you just have to look beyond the tackling - and his tackling was a disgrace by the way!

‘Sometimes he was verbally very aggressive, I can’t tell you what he said because you’d never write for the paper again. Some of the stuff he came out with to the opposition and dug-outs was so quick and cutting that we’d be laughing.

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‘When Noel Blake came to the club, all I kept thinking was “He’s massive”, yet he’s one of the most humble lads you could ever wish to meet.

‘The pair of us would go out onto the training track, taking part in 10-yard standing start sprints with our spikes on.

‘He did it for his own benefit. I needed to do it to be quicker than him. I wanted to either play in his place or with him, so I had to be as good or better than him.

‘As for Billy Gilbert, he was one of the most gifted centre-backs in terms of coming out with the ball, yet with what I would class a naughty side to him.

‘Just don’t park in his car park space. That’s all I’m saying!’

After 126 games and three goals, Ball was sold to Sunderland for £350,000 in July 1990, having turned down a new Pompey deal.

The Blues had finished 12th in Division Two under caretaker boss Frank Burrows, with their skipper making 42 appearances and scoring twice.

However, it would be Ball’s seventh and final first-team campaign at Fratton Park.

He said: ‘I never played for money, I played football because I loved it, but you also have to value yourself.

‘John Gregory offered me a deal, I thought it was a fair one, and if he’d still been there I would have been happy with it.

‘Then Frank (Burrows) came in. The contract came up again and it wasn’t quite what we agreed.

‘If you want me to play in the same team as lads earning good money then pay me accordingly. I wanted to make a stand and tell myself “I am worth it”.

‘Luckily enough I got a phone call from Sunderland among other clubs. I had no idea where it was!

‘I was aged 25 and it was a brave decision, a big gamble on my own behalf, but I had faith in my ability.

‘I still remember my next-door neighbour telling me “The grass is not always greener”. I replied “Well, I’ll have to make sure it’s greener, won’t I”.’

Ball would spend the next nine years at Sunderland, serving as skipper, wracking up 388 appearances, 28 goals, two promotions and an FA Cup final.

He later played for Fulham and Burnley before retiring in April 2002 at the age of 37.

Ball returned to the Black Cats to coach in their Academy, while has served two spells as the first-team’s caretaker boss and then an ambassadorial role, which he is currently furloughed from.

Based in Durham and now aged 56, he reflects glowingly on a career which began at Fratton Park.

He said: ‘I’ve had a great career, but also suffered for it in terms of injury.

‘I’ve got a metal left knee, there have been five operations on the right knee, 15 on the left knee, I’ve had a disc in my back done, had my neck rebuilt, I broke my jaw in a game so a plate was put in, then had major facial surgery about three years later when they took the jaw out and redid it.

‘My missus said I’ll be worth more when I’m dead and they can get all that metal out of my body.

‘I can’t complain. Being a footballer was always my dream – thankfully Pompey gave me that second chance I needed.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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