When Bill Shankly described Alan Ball as ‘one of the greatest players since the war’, he spoke for virtually all followers of English football through the 1960s and 1970s. The midfielder, who cut a distinctive figure because of a shock of flame-red hair – matched by a fiery temperament – was a World Cup winner in July 1966, aged just 21, and an Everton player a month later. The ultimate self-made footballer, fiercely driven and ambitious after suffering rejection by Bolton Wanderers as a teenager, he excelled at Goodison for five years, winning a league title in 1970 and forming part of the so-called ‘Holy Trinity’ with Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall.
Born in Farnworth, the Bolton suburb that also bred Tommy Lawton, Ball inherited something of a footballing pedigree, for his father – Alan Ball senior – was a lower-league journeyman with Southport, Birmingham City and Oldham, and later a coach and manager. Rejected by his home-town club – the trauma of rejection would be a formative experience – he signed for Blackpool at 15 and promised his father that he would play for England by the time he was 20.
Self-belief was never a problem for the young footballer. As a 16-year-old he found himself playing in practice games alongside Sir Stanley Matthews and during one session played a pass inside the full back, inviting the great man to run on to it. Matthews demanded that the ball be passed to his feet, only to be told: ‘It’s your job to bloody run and get it.’ Matthews may have been unimpressed, but Ball was soon to play his first league game for Blackpool in a 2-1 win at Liverpool.
He also maintained his promise to his father, making his international debut against Yugoslavia in May 1965, three days before his 20th birthday. Little over a year later he was lining up in the World Cup Final against West Germany; in extra time, Ball was the game’s best player, seen with his socks around his ankles, willing his team-mates on and inspiring them with his running. He provided the cross for the second of Geoff Hurst’s goals – the one that hit the underside of the crossbar – and could be seen in space, screaming for the ball, when Hurst hit his late third.
In his classic coaching study, Soccer For Thinkers, Malcolm Allison recalled what Ball said about the closing minutes of the 1966 final when he saw the ball run loose. ‘I thought, oh no! I can’t get that one – I’m finished. I had already died twice and been looking for a chance to have a breather for 10 minutes. But that [Karl-Heinz] Schnellinger was already shooting after it. Well, I’d been beating him all afternoon so there was no reason why I couldn’t do it again. Here we go again, I thought. This time I am really finished.’
‘How fast he raced to the ball I could not judge,’ Allison remembered. ‘Certainly it was faster than anyone else at that particular distance.’
Such energy and commitment made the inside forward a coveted player indeed, and it was inevitable that he would leave Blackpool for a bigger club. Leeds United seemed the most likely destination – in fact it later emerged that so desperate was their manager, Don Revie, to sign Ball that he arranged a series of surreptitious meetings with the player on Saddleworth Moor in which cash-filled envelopes were handed over to the player in an attempt to tap him up – but the Elland Road board were split over whether to meet Blackpool’s asking price: £110,000 – a British record.
Instead, Harry Catterick, always a wily manoeuvrer in the transfer market, slipped in and on 15 August 1966 met Blackpool’s price.
Despite winning the FA Cup in May 1966, Everton’s league form the previous season had been hugely disappointing and after a lethargic display in the Charity Shield against Liverpool, Catterick deemed it necessary to bolster his midfield. Ball marked his Everton debut against Fulham on 20 August with the only goal of the game, although the best was still to come from the pocket dynamo.
On 27 August, the second Saturday of the season, Everton met Liverpool for the first league derby of the season. According to Catterick, Ball’s arrival had already lifted the standard of the other player’s contributions ‘by 10 per cent’ but what happened that afternoon was more indicative of Ball’s influence than his manager’s rhetoric. On ten minutes Ball put Everton ahead after finishing off a Johnny Morrissey shot which had deflected into his path. Seven minutes later he took advantage of a mix-up between Ron Yeats and Gordon Milne to crash the ball into the roof of the net and put Everton 2-0 up. Despite a Tommy Smith goal, Liverpool were unable to force a comeback and Sandy Brown sealed a 3-1 victory seven minutes from time. ‘When the second one went in,’ Ball said later, ‘I’d never heard so many people singing my name or encouraging me like that in my life – even by comparison with the World Cup – and I’ve never experienced it again.’
Seven months later Ball re-affirmed his reputation as Liverpool’s bête noire when he hit the winner in an FA Cup fifth round tie. Such was the anticipation preceding the game, 105,000 tickets to watch the game, both live at Goodison and relayed on television screens at Anfield, had been sold within just three hours. Ball’s angled volley was the only goal of the match and brought an unprecedented roar from Evertonians watching from both the club’s current and former homes. ‘I smacked the volley from an acute angle right in the other corner,’ Ball recalled. ‘I’ve never hit a volley as sweetly in all my life. I finished up right in the corner by the flag, and I don’t think I got away from there for about three minutes. These days, I’d have been charged with bringing the game into disrepute!’
Unquestionably a vital and regular source of goals from the middle of the park – Ball scored 56 times in his first three seasons – his goalscoring should not overshadow his other attributes. His blend of ferocious aggression and delicate skill was unusual, but Ball carried it off to his own magnificent standards. Quick and energetic, a harrier and a chaser, though elegant too, Ball would not have looked out of place in the modern game.
Along with the World Cup, it was his midfield partnership with Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall for which he is most remembered. Goodison’s ‘Holy Trinity’ was considered to be a work of ‘perpetual motion’ and won many of the team’s plaudits. ‘As three players we hardly ever needed any coaching,’ Ball would recall. ‘We could find each other in the dark.’
Colin Harvey would say: ‘Howard, Alan and myself were all different but when we came together as a midfield three we just clicked and gelled. He was the one who did everything at 100 miles an hour and he had such a great big heart as well as fantastic ability. It was a privilege to have played with him.’
Although only 5ft 6in tall, Ball was the proverbial giant among men, omnipresent – and it wasn’t just his red hair and famous white boots which made him easy to pick out. The possessor of a fierce temper, team-mates and opposing players alike were often on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing from the midfielder if things went awry. Sent off twice in his early years at the club and given a five-week ban for poor discipline at a crucial stage in the 1969/70 season, Catterick took the unusual step of appointing Ball captain in an attempt to positively channel his aggression. Explaining the appointment, Everton’s manager said: ‘It was a psychological move to give Alan more responsibility and make him more aware of referees’ and players’ problems.’
Ball led Everton for the first time against Tottenham in March 1970 and played one of his best games in a blue shirt, getting on the scoresheet in a 2-1 victory. A six-match winning streak followed and Ball’s leadership was integral to Everton’s successful title challenge. Invariably, he enjoyed the added responsibility, which occurred as a result of an injury to Brian Labone. ‘I don’t think anything will change my temperament, but being captain helped me keep out of trouble,’ he said. ‘I could ask questions of referees instead of screaming at them as I used to do.’
Perhaps surprisingly, the 1970 League Championship was the only domestic medal Ball ever won, but for a period he was considered priceless. When Harry Catterick was asked for a valuation of Ball in spring 1971 he said, ‘I would not dream of selling him, but of course every player has his price. Alan’s is one million pounds.’ When asked if such a sum were offered, would he sell, Catterick replied, ‘No, but I would consider it first.’
But Catterick was unpredictable and ruthless. Nine months later, in December 1971, he sold the midfielder to double-winners Arsenal for £220,000 – another British record fee. Ball was ‘flabbergasted’ by his own account and did not want to go. Catterick, according to Ball, responded: ‘It’s business, son. I am doubling my money. I’ve had you for six years. I am making a profit on you and I have had an awful lot out of you. Football’s business, son.’ With those words, Ball was no longer an Everton player.
Most Evertonians were up in arms over the deal and many still recall the news with shock. The Everton historian George Orr believes there was more to the transfer than was immediately apparent, however, and later wrote of the deal in his book Everton in the Seventies: Singing the Blues:
There were rumours about gambling debts and unrest in the dressing room. I was at his last match at Derby and remember Howard Kendall playing a blinder and only making one bad pass, Ball turned round and screamed at him. Kendall walked toward Ball and gave him a look that could kill. This to me was the fault, Ball was a great player but his mouth was never shut, arguing with referees or linesmen cost him many bookings and forced Everton into team changes for avoidable suspensions. If you look back, players from that team, Lyons, Darracott, Kendall, Harvey and Royle have all gone on to serve the club in some form of management but there has never been a place for Ball, isn’t there a pointer there?
Ball served Arsenal for five years, also captaining England for a short time while at Highbury. He joined Southampton midway through the 1976/77 season and remained there until 1978. He then headed to the United States, spending two years playing in the NASL, first with Philadelphia Fury, then in Canada with Vancouver Whitecaps. In 1980 he left America for a short unsuccessful spell as Blackpool player-manager before returning to The Dell for a second spell as a Southampton player.
In 1982 one of the periodic attempts to stimulate football in Hong Kong brought Alan Ball to the former colony. His friend and fellow World Cup winner, Bobby Moore, had recently been appointed coach of Eastern Athletic by the club’s wealthy owners, and sought out Ball for some of the passion and guile that were trademarks over a 20-year-long career. ‘It was a great move,’ said Ball. ‘I would be linking up with Bobby again and there was plenty of money.’ So much, in fact, that he was able to turn his back on Southampton. A year later he returned to England, playing out his career with Bristol Rovers.
A managerial career of varying success followed. With Portsmouth, who he managed between 1984 and 1989, he won promotion to the First Division in 1987 and was considered the club’s best manager since the 1950s. At Stoke City (1989–91) he struggled, but at Exeter City (1991–94) he was a relative success, bringing some order and good times to a club whose history was replete with uncertainty and struggles. This led to 18 months in charge at Southampton (1994–95) where again Ball was a modest success, attaining mid-table respectability and bringing the best from the Saints’ mercurial star Matthew Le Tissier. In the summer of 1995 he was allowed to join Manchester City, but the move was disastrous; City were relegated from the Premiership and Ball resigned three games into the 1996/97 season. A brief spell back at Portsmouth in the late 1990s was fruitless.
By the first years of the 21st century, Ball’s football career was all but over. An occasional pundit and prized after-dinner speaker, he was always a popular guest at Goodison and at reunion dinners was treated with the same reverence with which he had been greeted in his heyday. The death of his wife, Lesley, in 2004 hit him hard and was detailed with candour in his autobiography Playing Extra Time, published later that year. Ball, always sprightly, courteous and with a word for everyone, put on a brave face and remained positive. It shocked the world of football and Evertonians in particular when he died suddenly at his home in April 2007.
‘I supported Everton as a boy, played there, coached there and managed there,’ said Colin Harvey after his friend’s death. ‘For me he was the greatest Evertonian of all time. Obviously I never saw Dixie Dean play, but in my time Alan was the greatest I have seen at Everton. The fact that he was the man of the match in a World Cup Final at 21 years of age says it all.’ Phil Neville, Ball’s modern successor as Everton captain, said: ‘I will always recall he was nothing other than an absolute gentleman. He is a legend through being part of the ’66 team, and an Everton legend through his faultless performances on the pitch. He was, and still is, an inspiration for all current Everton players.’
Goodison Park saw the best of Alan Ball’s firebrand football and it was here where his heart lay. Shortly before his death Ball said: ‘When you have been touched by football clubs – when you’ve played for them, when you’ve represented them and when you’ve managed them – they are always there with you, they never change. But I have got to say that I am an Evertonian. The worse things get, the better the fans get, and that is why Everton is such a fantastic football club. And that is why players that play for Everton know exactly what is needed.
‘I would love to play at Goodison again. It held so many memories for me. It was just such a wonderful place to play … in front of people who appreciated players giving 100 per cent. That is what Goodison is all about and that is what the club is all about.’
For many players, winning the World Cup at 21 could mean complacency or a downwards spiral, but Ball prevented his career from fizzling into anticlimax through a continual and tireless dedication to improve his game. When he was feted as an England hero in 1966 he said, ‘People say I am a success but I have won nothing. No cup medal, no League medal, no European honour.’ Even when he won the League in 1970 his relentless search for perfection continued – although no more medals were ever to come Alan Ball’s way.