Great Balls Of Fire
This Saturday, the flags at several English football clubs will be flying at half-mast to mourn the passing of Alan Ball, at the age of just 61. Ball, the youngest member of the English 1966 World Cup winning team died from a heart attack last night, becoming the second member of that team to join the England squad in the sky (one of these days I’ll come up with a definitive squad of dead England players, but I don’t really think that now is the most appropriate time). His singular appearance, with a shock of red hair and a voice that always made him sound as if he’d just been strangled, made him something of a figure of ridicule during his years as a manager, but it was an unfair assessment even then. He will be sadly missed – a player that had a lengthy career both as a player and a manager.
Watching the 1966 World Cup Final back earlier this evening, it’s difficult to understate the importance of Ball’s performance. It’s certainly hard to believe that he had won his first cap just sixteen months previously. He won and took the corner that led to England’s second goal, and his run and pass set up Geoff Hurst’s second and England’s all important third goal. In extra-time, with more or less everybody on the pitch absolutely exhausted, Ball was, more often than not, the only player on the pitch that was still running. Had Hurst not scored three goals, he would have been a contender for the Man Of The Match award. He was back at the World Cup finals in 1970, hitting the crossbar in England’s ultimately costly 1-0 defeat at the hands of Brazil, and picked up a total of 72 caps for the national team.
His club career spanned four English teams and almost twenty-one years. From Blackpool, he went to Everton in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup final, becoming Britain’s most expensive footballer (at a cost of £110,000) into the bargain. Making up the so-called “Holy Trinity” in Everton’s midfield with Colin Harvey and Howard Kendal, he spearheaded a brief revival in their fortunes, reaching the 1968 FA Cup Final before helping to their surprise Championship win of 1970. He’d doubled in value by 1972, when he went to Arsenal, and spent the best years of his career at Highbury before leaving for Southampton in 1976. Promotion back to the top division followed, before a brief flurry of activity, first in the NASL for Vancouver Whitecaps, followed by a brief and unsuccessful spell as player-manager at Blackpool, and a surprise return to The Dell, to help Southampton briefly challenge Liverpool for the league championship. He finally ended his playing career in 1983, having played 975 senior matches.
As a manager he had a mixed record. He took Portsmouth into the First Division for the first time in 30 years in 1987, but was unable to save Stoke City in the early 1990s. Perhaps a surprising choice at Southampton, he took The Saints to a mid-table position that belied their pre-season billing as relegation favourites and (significantly, if you supported Southampton at the time, persuaded Matthew Le Tissier to sign a new contract when there were plenty of bigger clubs offering him alternative sources of employment). Much has been made of his brief but controversial time in charge of Manchester City in the mid-1990s. There was plenty of acrimony over his departure to Maine Road, and plenty of ridicule of his time there, but it’s probably fair to say that City were at the start of a tailspin that no-one could have predicted. He retired after being harshly sacked by Portsmouth in 1999, having saved them from relegation from Division One after all had seemed lost the year before.
Off the pitch, his life was affected by occasional tragedy. He lost his father (also named Alan, and also once a professional footballer) in a car crash, and lost his wife to cancer at just 57 in 2004. In the same year, his daughter was also diagnosed with the disease, though she has survived him. The loss of his wife reportedly hit him very hard, and one of the saddest aspects of this entire story is that he had very recently started to come to terms with his loss. With a ridiculously over-hyped match being played at Stamford Bridge tonight, it’s timely to remind some of the “superstars” on show that only eleven Englishmen have ever won a World Cup winner’s medal, and Alan Ball was one of the most deserving of the lot of them. Gerard, Rooney, Crouch and the rest of them should take a moment to consider that, the next time they’re pulling on an England shirt.