Michael Ball was one of the first of an outstanding crop of young players to emerge from the Everton youth system in the late 1990s. The left-sided defender and graduate of the FA National School was handed his Everton debut during Dave Watson’s caretaker spell in charge at the end of the 1996/97 season and despite Everton’s perilous position at the time, never looked anything but a model of composure.
Even at the age of just 17, the tall blond defender seemed the very antithesis of the typical English defensive player. Composed on the ball and the possessor of an exceptional first touch and with assured and confident distribution, it was clear that Ball was a cut above many of his contemporaries. And yet he possessed the strength and aerial presence that suited the hurly-burly of the Premier League.
During Howard Kendall’s disastrous third reign as manager, Ball was one of the few players to flourish. Given an extended run as a left wing back, Ball’s confident displays were enough for Kendall to deem Andy Hinchcliffe – England’s sometime left back, no less – surplus to requirements mid-season. An England under-21 call-up was just reward for a player whose sterling displays helped keep Everton from sliding into the abyss.
Through the 1998/99 season Ball kept his place in the Everton team, although under Walter Smith’s management – which at times seemed preoccupied with filling the team with as many defenders as possible – Ball was often asked to fill in as a left midfielder, which was unsuited for the young defender. His performances waned and he fell foul of Smith, whose disciplinarian style had little patience with the perceived excesses of the younger players. With Richard Dunne, Ball was publicly admonished for missing training after the millennium celebrations, and later disciplined for having the temerity to laugh on the team coach after a League Cup defeat.
During the 2000/01 season a long-term injury to Richard Gough saw Ball revert to centre half, where he excelled. Twice he was called up to the England squad, making his debut against Spain in February 2001 in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s first game as manager. Ball was awarded the club’s player of the year award but should have recognised that this was a curse: the two previous recipients – Nick Barmby and Don Hutchison – had been sold without playing another game after receiving the accolade.
On the basis of his excellent form, Ball requested a revised contract, but these negotiations soon fell down. Smith used the opportunity to rid the club of a player who he seemed to disdain – this despite Ball’s perennial excellence and youth. Still aged only 21 he was sold to Glasgow Rangers for £6.5million in August 2001.
Ball made no secret of the fact that he did not wish to leave. ‘I went to the training ground to say my goodbyes but I had to leave because I was getting too emotional,’ he said. ‘It was a sad moment for me as I’d been at the club since I was 14 and never expected to leave. The tears were on their way and I didn’t want my friends to see me like that so I cut my goodbyes short and got in my car.’
His time at Rangers was undermined by persistent injuries – the result of playing on with painkilling injections while at Everton. Ball later said: ‘I was disappointed with Everton because they went with the cheapest option at the time to get me fit. The injections rather than the operation, and I was naive perhaps. When you think back, they were fighting relegation and then they sell me in the six weeks that my knee is good from the injection.’ In all it cost him 18 months on the sidelines and diminished some of his earlier promise. When he recovered Rangers refused to play him, lest he play more than 60 games and so trigger an extra payment to Everton. The impasse was eventually resolved after much public posturing and Ball lifted the Scottish title in 2005.
Shortly after he was sold to PSV Eindhoven for £500,000, where he spent an unsuccessful 18-month spell. He returned to the Premier League in January 2007 with Manchester City, initially on a short-term deal. That summer rumours linked Ball with a return to Everton, but a move was not forthcoming and he took up the option of a new contract at Eastlands. When that expired in 2009 he spent two years out of the game, but returned to Leicester, then managed by Eriksson, in the summer of 2011. The experience ended unhappily; just three games into his Leicester career he was dismissed after receiving an FA fine for making homophobic comments on a social media site.