It’s 11:30am on Friday 4th August and I’m sitting in Black Cat House, already nervous about the opening game of the season against Derby, waiting for Mr. Sunderland himself - Kevin Ball. Nervous isn’t the word.
After quizzing receptionist Pauline about whether she’s seen Ross McCormack around the place today (she hasn’t), Bally appears through the double doors at the main entrance and introduces himself. And after receiving a bone-breaking handshake, I set up my recording equipment as he asks if I fancy a coffee. “Please marra, black” I answer.
Nursing my now shattered hand, I set up my mic for recording and waited. Back he came with a nice black coffee in his very own ‘Mr Strong’ Mr Man mug.
Finally, I could write ‘Roker Report meets... Kevin Ball’ - My bloody idol!
RR: Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your legendary years at Sunderland as a player, manager, youth coach and now ambassador. Here’s a nice easy one to begin with. From your time at the club, who would be in your SAFC XI, either with or without you in it?
KB: I’d have to be in it! I want to play!
It would have to be the team that won the league with 105 points. The reason I say that team, is it encompassed everything you want in a team. We had the disappointment of the season beforehand - Reidy tweaked it a little and Sacko looked at things. His (Saxton’s) knowledge of football is frightening; I still see him now. We go for tea sometimes and he tells me what I’ve got to have - and I still listen to him! We sit and discuss the last game and before you know it, four hours have gone and the waitress is asking you to leave.
The team in 1995-96 could come close, too. We had ability in the team, but we had such a togetherness it was frightening. But I have to say that team (105 pt) just for everything it had. The balance was perfect.
RR: You signed for Denis Smith in 1990 and spent a decade playing for the club. Did you ever think when you walked in those doors at Roker Park, you’d come to love the club as much as you did?
KB: I got a little tingle up my body when you asked that. I love the way that Denis Smith brought me to the club. Me and my wife met him at the train station: he showed us around Durham, all around Sunderland, he took me to the beach. It’s quite funny actually - he took me to a certain part of Sunderland and asked if I had a nice car, I had a Renault 11 Turbo, I told him, and Denis went “well you better get an alarm if you want to keep it around here!” He said it tongue in cheek, but I love the fact he showed me every single part of Sunderland.
We had a really good laugh. He took me back to the station and went “Alright, see you later”. I was saying to him, “Are we not going to talk about figures?” but he didn’t want to, he just left me there and said “Nope - I just wanted to see if you liked the place. I’ll ring you in a few days”. It was genius - it allowed me to see Sunderland.
To answer your question though, I found it tough when I first moved, I’m not going to lie. We played Torpedo Moscow and I had played quite well; but I had scored an own goal. I went to get me and the Mrs a Chinese and some lad came up to me; “are yee Kevin Ball?” he said - I thought I had a fan so I said yes! He proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was useless, to put it nicely. But he was right! It’s playing in the area and things like that which make you ready for the challenge of playing for a club like this. You learn very quickly.
People say to me (on his time at Sunderland) I was a committed lad, but not the best footballer and I have to stop them and list what I thought I was good at, then I ask them if they think that quantifies being a good footballer. Heading, tackling, leadership and desire, are all parts of being a good footballer.
RR: People outside of the club say the same about Lee Cattermole...
KB: Each footballer is given a gift, their job is to make the most of it and I’d like to think players like me and Catts have done that in abundance. People here love a wondrous strike and some skill, but what they want to see - need to see - is someone who wants to wear that jersey.
RR: What is your funniest memory of Peter Reid?
KB: I was his captain so it was a close relationship. If something happened, I used to go to him and suggest what we could do to fix it and he’d trust me with that.
Did we clash? Yeah, we had some good arguments along the way. There was one game at Grimsby away: I was meant to pick up a lad called Paul Groves, but he kept playing on Brace. Reidy kept shouting at me “f**cking pick up Groves!” and I was giving him it back “I’m f**cking trying!!” I scored just before half time to put us one up but I was having a problem with my calves at the time, and at half-time I went to see our physio Steve Smelt about them. Reidy was still having a go at me and said “leave him alone the c**t”. - it wasn’t what he called me, it was that he said it as he turned his back on me as he said it. That was it. Next thing you know, we were both right at it - a proper fifteen minute rant! You could see the lads thinking ‘I’m not getting in the way of this!’
We were going to do each other at the end of the match, sort of thing (laughing).
Second half I made two goals for Bridgey, we won 4-0. I got the Endsleigh Eagle Man of the Match trophy; I was just thinking ‘Where is he? I’m going to batter him round the head with this’. I went to look for him and he was in the tunnel waiting for me. “Skip - you were magnificent today” he said. It was the best bit of man management I’ve ever seen. Did I want to fight him? Course I didn’t, neither of us did. It was just a pride thing - but he knew what he was doing. It was magnificent of him.
RR: You played alongside some great midfielders. McCann, Schwarz, Rae, Clark - but who was the best?
KB: I played at centre-half as well, you have to remember. Benno, Mel for a little while, I thought Dickie Ord was great. Terry Butcher though - he was the best.
What I liked about him was he was an icon, but if I told him to move - he’d move, if I said something to him - he’d listen. I loved playing with him. We would train extra; passing, heading. We were both good with both feet. I loved playing alongside either Alex (Rae) or Clarky. Alex was a better all round football than both of us. He was brilliant, he was cocky on the ball. He was a dirty little bugger! He was having those issues at the time as well; I love seeing him now because he just looks great. If I had to choose one though - Clarky.
RR: Talk me through taking that penalty in the play-off final against Charlton, it was the best penalty of the lot! What was going through your head at the time?
KB: I’m not lying here; I had a dream the night before I was the one who missed the penalty.
I had a bootboy called Paul Beavers and he was great. He’d buy the kids selection boxes - he was a really good kid. The best bootboy you could have. Anyway, I grabbed him a few days before the game whilst training at the stadium and asked him to go in goal whilst I took penalties at him. I told him to dive everywhere. I had to get that dream out of my head. If you watch my penalty, it was thought about. (It was) really methodical.
Fast forward yourself to the day of the game. Did we expect penalties? No. Would I have normally taken one? No. But when Kevin and Nash (Clark) went off injured and Reidy asked who was taking them. I just said “I’m taking one, but I’m taking the third one” - I had a thing about taking the third one. If I hadn’t volunteered to take one, I would have never forgiven myself. I didn’t want anyone to take away the responsibility from the captain. Even if I had missed, I wouldn’t want to look back and not have taken one.
Nicky just said “I’m gonna just smash it”, Chrissy Makin was giggling like a nervous child, Johnno said nothing; just that calm Johnno look - so I look at Alex Rae and I said “you alright?” - “no, I’m shitting myself” he replied (laughing). You had 90,000 in the ground, by this point everyone would have been watching around the world. I had to just make it me and the goalkeeper.
You could have picked Micky to miss. Look at his body language. I thought Micky Gray was magnificent for the club, he was arrogant sometimes but he trained so hard, he was so funny and he was that good on the pitch. That was his character and I loved him for that - but you could see in his body language he was going to miss.
The journey home, I remember Lionel Perez was so low and so down, he was just down the front having a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I had one with him, I just felt Lionel needed someone. My little girl told my wife about that and I got told off, mind!
We have not got promoted, but I tell you this... it was the best thing that ever happened to this club. It catapulted us into the public limelight, it galvanised this club and fans like you’ve never seen before and when me and Quinny came out and said we’re going to win the league next season, that was the catalyst for those four seasons that came afterwards.
RR: You were the captain when the Lee Clark t-shirt incident happened. Did you speak to him about that?
KB: Yeah, course I did. I knew Clarky very well by that point, obviously. It was disappointment, but it was also disappointment in the bloke that done it to him. Nash was a really good lad. If he’d came to the club and said “I support Sunderland now” I would have probably never trusted him for the rest of my life. He said he was a Newcastle fan and he wasn’t going to change. I liked that.
When he had a drink though, he would drink ‘til he could drink no more. He likes enjoying himself. It didn’t bother me, we all do what we want to do. The thing is none of us know how that t-shirt got on him. If he’d chose to wear it we would have closed the doors to the training ground to him. I always wonder where his mates were at that time, but I wish the fella who did it knew what he did to Lee’s career when he put that shirt on him, because as soon as it happened, he was out of the club. I was gutted because we lost a great player. We had lost a fantastic player. It was such a shame.
RR: What was your proudest moment as captain of the club?
KB: This one is easy. The year we won the league with 105 points.
The game against Birmingham: it was like the end of the journey. You had a few periods where we should have done better, then you get to the relegation, the play off season. It was a real journey.
I remember when we went up in 1996, we all went on holiday to Magaluf and some lad was having a right go at me about losing at Tranmere on the last day. I understood it, he was disappointed we had lost at Tranmere, his words stuck with me. So when we won the league with four or five games to go, I didn’t want to let up. I was so worked up, me and Sacko had a big argument on the training ground which ended up in him poking me in the chest. I told him not to do that and all he said was “Kevin, do you want me to get the manager?” and I thought “Nah, you’re alright!” and left (laughs).
I had fifteen bookings going into the Birmingham game. I had to go before of the FA disciplinary panel and try and plead my innocence so I could still play! I worked out the number of physical confrontations I had in a game vs how many bookings I had. I had played forty games that season, I had twenty physical confrontations per game, that’s eight hundred confrontations over a season and I’ve only been booked fifteen times with non of them being for dissent. I got fined but I wasn’t bothered - I could play. Reidy said he’d pay the fine if I got one (he still hasn’t paid) and forced me to ring poor Paul Thirlwell and tell him he wasn’t playing, though!
We were losing 0-1 at half time and a few words were said because we weren’t playing well. Second half we turned it on and won the game 2-1. When that whistle went... that was the end of the journey. I just sat, waited for Audrey to bring the tea in and soaked it all in. When I went out with Reidy to pick up the trophy... what a feeling!
I still have the photo on my wall - me holding the trophy to the supporters - the end of the journey. One of the billboards has Vaux on it; they went under that year. It was a brilliant moment for the area, but also a sad one too. I spoke to Frank Nicholson (former Vaux managing director) the other day, I told him about this and he got really emotional.
Join us for part two tomorrow.