What Does The Future Hold For Kevin Ball?

Michael Regan

As Kevin Ball returns to coaching the Under-21's, both he and the club may end up ruing a missed opportunity to get him involved with first team affairs on a long term basis.

When Kevin Ball recently took temporary charge of Sunderland for a second time in his career he made it clear that he was interested in taking the job over in a full time capacity. He also admitted he would be happy to return to his role with the under 21s if he was overlooked for the job, which in this instance he was. His loyalty is commendable but will it prove to be misplaced in the long run?

Although he took charge of just two games in his latest stint at the helm, Ball used the players in the way his predecessor Di Canio should have done. He employed a three man midfield and attempted to make use of the summer's fitness regime by employing a high intensity pressing game against two of the Premier League's best sides. Despite losing both games, there were encouraging signs.

A number of supporters - though without question, not all - were coming round to the idea that Ball could well be a decent choice for the head coach position on a permanent basis. In the past, fans have called for him to be brought in as an old school, no nonsense man, to give underperforming players a "kick up the backside" but now there is genuine reason to believe he has the potential to be much more than that.

Promotion from within is the hallmark of a successful club, which nobody would accuse Sunderland of being at present. For that reason alone, it is understandable that Ball was overlooked on this occasion for someone with a better managerial pedigree and who has a proven history of imprinting an identity on a club, which is something Sunderland have sorely lacked for several years.

Poyet certainly did that with Brighton and the likelihood is he will be given sufficient time to do the same here. Despite the managerial position having become something of a poison chalice at Sunderland in recent years, it is clear Ellis Short wants someone with a long term vision at the helm and it would surely take a catastrophe to see him part company with Uruguayan without giving him a decent amount of time to change things. Even if Sunderland are relegated, Poyet's pedigree in the Championship suggests he would be the man charged with returning the club to the top flight, tasked with instilling his philosophy along the way.

If Poyet is a success then the chances are he will be offered a chance at a bigger club. He made no secret of his ambition whilst in charge at Brighton, at times to the dismay of the club's fans. If that were to happen after a period of success here, it should not be an issue, particularly with the way the club has restructured since the end of last season. The head coach position should be relatively interchangeable, particularly if Poyet is able to provide the team with the identity it has long been missing.

Where then, does all of this leave Kevin Ball? Although, as mentioned, he was happy to return to the Under-21 setup, it does leave him with a slender chance of ever taking the top job on a permanent basis. Given his express desire to do just that, can the club ask him again to step in as a caretaker in the future? Would he be happy to do the same again, only to be sent back to his role with the Under-21's? Will he eventually grow restless with the glass ceiling stunting his growth?

Surely now would have been an ideal opportunity to involve Ball with the first team. It would have been unfair on Poyet to force an assistant manager on him, but the club would have been within its rights to install him as part of the coaching staff. Experience with the first team squad is essential if he is to one day take the top job.

Instead, Poyet has brought with him both his assistant manager and first team coach from Brighton. Charlie Oatway, who is 9 years Ball's junior, will take on the latter role. His career with Brighton was similar to Ball's own at Sunderland, having spent nigh on a decade there as a player. Indeed it was his playing career with the club that opened the door for him to forge a coaching career in the English football league.

This is not a criticism of Oatway by any means and it may be that Poyet is right to stick with his tried and trusted staff and the club is right to do everything in its power to back their new man. However, it seems like a missed opportunity to give Ball a richly deserved opportunity to work with the first team, particularly with an eye on the long term.

Oatway parted company with Brighton when Poyet left. Given Ball's loyalty to Sunderland throughout a number of managerial regimes, would it not be better to have someone involved who knows the squad and is likely to stay on in the event the Uruguayan moves on and takes his staff with him once again? The club is geared up for the long term with its director of football and transfer strategy, even altering the managerial title to that of head coach and it would seem logical to extend this reach into the first team coaching set up.

Ball may well regret his decision to return to the Under-21's. For the sake of his own career, now may have been the time to part ways with the club and look to find different experience elsewhere. If he is serious about one day managing Sunderland or indeed any club, which he certainly seems to be, then should the job come up again there is a good chance he will once again be overlooked.

Ball is not yet in a catch-22 situation regarding a future in club management but he is fast approaching it. Unlike someone of Poyet's ilk he does not have the pedigree and name of a former Premier League great and as he is approaching 50 years old, he does not have youth on his side. It is difficult to see why any Championship club would take a chance on him as manager and due to his age, he is running out of time to get involved with the first team as a coach elsewhere and work his way into management via that route. In fact, Sunderland was probably his best chance of doing things that way, as his name holds sway here.

Ball's loss is Sunderland's gain - for now - but in the long term, it could be that this moment is seen as a missed opportunity for both parties.

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