With the International nonsense out of the way we can once again get excited about the beautiful game and a favourable, on paper at least, run of games for SAFC ahead. If all goes according to plan a decent run here could really inject some life back into this stuttering campaign. With Fulham making the trip North from the big smoke this Saturday afternoon it time to invite another great into the Roker Report Cult Heroes Club and this week it is a man that needs no introduction. In fact it is a man that not just epitomises the term Cult Hero but probably coined the phrase himself, or maybe just too out the man that did with a sturdy tackle and stole the idea, who knows.
So kind readers, if you will, a round of applause for the skipper – Kevin Ball.
Despite hailing from Hastings fewer players have bought into the Sunderland way of life more than Kevin Ball, arguably only Sir Quinn has allowed the club to "get under their skin" and change their lives eternally as much. Ball was Denis Smith’s first signing following promotion in 1990 and he was the kind of player that the Roker faithful and in due course the Stadium of Light crowd would take totheir heart, just as they did Ball’s.
Ever the fully committed, no-nonsense, aggressive yet fair, heart on his sleeve midfielder Kevin wasted no time in winning over the crowd following his move from Portsmouth in 1990 where he was originally employed as a central defender. Clearly the skipper needed more room to launch himself into those famous 50/50 tackles.
I’ll never forget the image of Bally at Roker Park, barking out orders to the rest of the side, closing down the opposition and putting everything into every single tackle as if his life depended on it. With his trademark nasal tape, captain’s armband and clenched fist, Kevin was a different breed of footballer. What he lacked in flair he made up for sheer dedication, an unerring desire for victory and constant display of passion.
Everyone will have their Kevin Ball story, a memory, something that brings a wry smile to their face. Probably the most popular amongst SAFC fans when asked would be the moment when Ball’s hero status was
in the balance following a mistimed challenge on Duncan Ferguson in the 1999/00 Tyne Wear derby. The ball sailed on an arching path that seemed destined for the back of Sunderland’s net over the head of a stranded Sorensen.
Kevin Ball hits his own crossbar from 35 yards (via rongutter)
"I went in with a tackle to get everything, and I mean the lot. I was going as hard and as fast for him as I could - ball as well obviously... I never realised until I saw Alex Rae saying "It's going in". It was a surreal moment... It hit the top of the crossbar and I was thinking clear the corner"
That single moment defined a career on Wearside spanning almost a decade. A lesser player may have dwelt on a mistake that could have cost their team the game, but not Bally, he marched back to his
penalty area and marshalled his troops ahead of the corner.
There are two memories that standout for me whenever the name Kevin Ball crops up in conversation other than the St. James' lob. The first being "that" diving header at Roker Park in the 1996/97 season infront of the Fulwell End in a 3-0 win over Chelsea. Undoubtedly the best diving header I have seen from a Sunderland player bar none. Kevin’s swan dive to meet an inch perfect cross from the left was picture perfect as was the image of him grabbing the net with both hands and embracing the wild celebrations from the home terrace.
Kevin Ball diving header against Chelsea in 1996 (via NiallQuinnsSlacks)
"The Mickey Gray's always late"
Ball’s Sunderland career came to an end when former team mate, then Fulham manager, Paul Bracewell offered him the chance to join the London outfit and link up with other ex-Black Cats Lee Clark and Andy
Melville in December of 1999. Kevin quickly became a first team regular with his new side until Bracewell was given the heave-ho in June 2000 and his replacement Jean Tigana obviously didn’t see the midfielder in his plans and a free transfer to Burnley was quickly agreed, a side with which Ball had a lot more luck carrying on his cult hero like status.
Of course since then Kevin has since returned to his home-from-home since hanging up his boots in 2002 in a coaching capacity with the reserve side, an opportunity afforded to him by everyone’s favourite nutcase Howard Wilkinson in early 2003. Ball has undertaken a number of roles behind the scenes since his return including the youth team and positions within the Academy following it’s restructure.
However even Bally couldn’t have predicted that his return to the club would also see him step into the dugout as caretaker manager following Mick McCarthy’s dismissal in March of 2006. Whilst the side was
already resigned to relegation, Kevin still relished the challenge and opportunity of attempting to motivate such a group of players and was "rewarded" with the side’s first home win of the season… Dark days indeed.
Having vacated the managerial hot-seat Ball returned to his day job and in particular working with the "hot prospects". Kevin, for example, worked alongside a certain Jordan Henderson for two years during his progression through the ranks, a role the skipper takes great pride in:
"When a player comes through and makes his debut, it’s an absolutely awesome feeling. I remember when various players have made their debuts and I was more excited than a young lad with his Christmas present. It’s a great feeling and long may it continue".
Personally I think its fantastic that someone like Ball is still with the club. Someone who can instil in the players behind the scenes what playing for SAFC means. Much like Quinn is the ideal man to be selling
the club to potential overseas investors, Ball is the perfect candidate to help convey the passion and emotional attachment the Sunderland fans have to their side to the players coming through the academy system or from abroad because Kevin shared the same passion and emotion, he's one of us.
So there we have it, another Cult Hero has finally been given the recognition that their career has so evidently deserved! Let us know your Kevin Ball moment in the comments below!