RR: After your retirement, you came back to the club in 2002 to work with the Academy, a job which you did very successfully. Did you always know you’d come back to Sunderland?
KB: I took time out of football for about six months after I retired. My wife said it was the most relaxed she’d ever seen me - but when I returned to football I became a t**t again!
It was Lesley Callaghan who started the ball rolling, with Howard Wilkinson. He rang and asked me to come and have a chat with him - honestly, hand on heart, I will be forever grateful to Lesley and Howard for bringing me back to the club - always to Howard for agreeing to it. My only regret is I wish he could have been more successful at the club, because I think he could of been brilliant for Sunderland. A few things went wrong at the start and it just never really got going. I thought it was a shame because he was so witty, dry - a brilliant coach, brilliant man manager.
I remember he did a team talk where I sat at the back and tried to get a perspective - it was brilliant. He came up to me afterwards, “what do you think of that then?” he said and I told him it was magnificent - until the last 15 minutes... then it bored the s**t out of me! “I thought I went on a bit” he said - he knew, he admitted it. He realised it.
To this day though, I thought it was such a shame because I genuinely thought he was one of the nicest blokes I’ve ever met.
RR: Who do you think is the biggest youth talent you had under your wing?
KB: You have to say Jordan Henderson. Myself and Elliott Dickman spoke along with other influential coaches and Elliott said he had a fantastic attitude and desire to improve, but more importantly a real love for the game. I believe some people had question marks over him because of his physical stature at the time but the other parts of his game and personality far outweighed any possible risk.
He wanted to play all the time. He had such an unbelievable work ethic, I needed to rest him sometimes, make sure he wasn’t tired or over doing things. He used to clean the carpets by the changing room. I showed him how to clean it with the brush; it used to be dead muddy, but give it a good brush and it’d be clean. I went down one day and the carpet was sparkling clean so I asked who had done the jobs that day - it was Jord. He was a 17-year-old kid and he’d went and borrowed the hoover from one of the girls. That was Jordan - he didn’t just want to clean it to a standard, he wanted to make it look even better. It was that element of work ethic, mixed with massive ability.
Roy Keane once said to Jordan after a Reserve game where we had been beaten at Gateshead “are you going to make it into my first team?” and Hendo replied with certainty “Yes, I am”. He had such an incredible drive. I think he really blossomed under Steve (Bruce) but he sometimes made him do jobs which Hendo would do no problem, but it prevented him from being the player I knew he could be. He would be asked to do jobs like marking Ashley Cole out of the game - but I knew he had fantastic passing ability, free kicks, shooting - you name it. I used to say to him “remember you’ve got this, that’s your edge factor”. Then he left of course, but he’s never changed. I saw him recently at an interview we had to do together in Liverpool, I watched him walking up to meet me and he’s still in ripped jeans and a hoodie. He hasn’t changed a bit - and this is the Liverpool and England captain.
Jordan Henderson loves our club and epitomised everything that should run through the veins of any young player coming through our academy. You’d want a bit of his DNA.
RR: On the flip side, who was the best youth product that never made it in the game?
KB: There’s a lot of discussion around the Academy of Light being the academy; what we spent on it and things like that. The Academy of Light is an opportunity for young players to come and ply their trade, but please understand this first. The actual academy side is very small compared to the first team. It isn’t just for the academy, it’s also the training complex for the senior side. You can then go into budgets; if you look over the course of the years, the amount of money that has come in for players that have developed through the academy - take out Jack Colback who went on a free who would have had an assumed value - coupled with the amount of players still playing at a good level, it’s been a success. It’s something we want to continue doing, we want it to be a place that gives an opportunity to young players to make it into our first team.
To answer your question though - we had a young man called Nathan Luscombe, who I have to say is one of the funniest lads I’ve ever met. He was also a brilliant footballer - left foot, right foot. He could do anything. He needed a little structure in his life. He was a pain in the arse! He used to do things like put deep heat into the others lads boxers - obviously it was very funny, but whichever player it was, it would of been his mother that bought him them for £12-£15 - Calvin Kleins - so I’d tell Natty that he’d have to replace them, reimburse what the parents had spent. He never replaced them for two weeks, so I told him “bring them tomorrow Nathan, or it’ll be two pairs and I’ll take it out your wages”. Anyway, in he comes the next day with a pair of white boxers that he’d bought from the market, and he’d wrote Calvin Klein in marker pen on the front. It was hilarious.
He was a great player and a very funny lad, but a pain in the arse like I say. One day I said to him to come to my house after he’d be acting up because we needed to sort this out, get him into a different environment. Where I live is quite hard to find. I told him to be there at 10:45, he’s ringing me at half ten saying he can’t find it. He turns in about five to 11, I opened the door to him and he said “this is a pain in the arse to find” and I told him “You know what Nathan, that’s exactly what you’ve been” and shut the door on him. He just laughed though, he understood what I had done and what I was trying to show him. Unfortunately he sustained a serious knee injury from which he never really recovered or got back to his best.
But what an absolutely fantastic footballer and a funny, funny lad. I’d love to see him again. Would I go out of my way to see him again? 100%. Was he the best talent I had at this club that never made it? Definitely.
RR: You got the caretaker role for the first time after Mick McCarthy got the sack. Was it hard to go back to your youth team role after that?
KB: No, not really. When Bob Murray asked me to do it, it was a huge honour. I think I fulfilled what was needed to be done, which was restore a little bit of pride in those last few games.
Everton away, Rory Delap hits wrong side of the post or we would have won it, 1-0 up against Portsmouth and Kevin Kyle handles in the box, 1-0 up in the derby and Kelvin is a little bit hesitant and we’re suddenly 4-1 down. I remember saying to the boys about their lack of certain levels of professionalism. I went into the changing room, there was a list of fines on the wall that I went through with them. I told them it was unacceptable and said that we were going to draw a line under it but I expected better going forward. I crumpled up the piece of paper and tossed it at the bin about 15 yards away - it only went straight in didn’t it?! (laughs) it was a great exit. Some people said I was in a no win situation taking over, but what an experience and if I was in the same position all those years ago I would have done exactly the same thing. We won a home game which we hadn’t done all season; we got a draw at Man Utd and I felt like I fulfilled the remit of restoring some pride.
I had a row outside the ground with a fan because the players did a lap of the SOL after the last game against Fulham. I just told him it wasn’t a lap of honour for us, but a thank you to the fans for still backing us, and that I had told them to do it.
RR: The second time you got the caretaker job, there was a lot more talk around you getting the role on a permanent basis. In the games against Liverpool, Peterborough and Manchester United you had the team playing good football, and playing for the shirt. How disappointed were you to not to get the job?
KB: I remember looking at those three games and thinking “we’ve got a job on here”. I changed the system; I liked a certain way of playing in a 4-3-3. We did well to win that game against Peterborough, it was important we won it for where the club was at. They were top of League One at that time, it was a real potential banana skin.
Then your next game is Liverpool, and who’s return is it? Luis Suarez. Why did he have to return in that game? The goal from the set piece... I still bang my head off the wall about that now. We had issues with set plays that year in the first team and we had a system with the U21s that had worked well, so we went through both ways of doing things and let the players choose which one they felt most comfortable with, but honestly... half a yard difference and that goal could have been prevented. Then you go deservedly 1-0 up against Manchester United, but Januzaj had his showpiece game; poor old Celustka - he must still be having nightmares now, also if Giacherrini’s header had gone in... little things that could have made so much difference.
Would I have liked to have taken the job on? Absolutely. Did it change my thoughts or my loyalty to any new manager coming in by not getting it? Absolutely not. I know full well this club is miles bigger than Kevin Ball will ever be. I knew, in my role as U21 manager my job was to do as well in my role to make his role (the incoming manager) as easy as possible.
To say I was disappointed though, this story would probably sum it up. The U21s had a game with Villa on the day I found out I wasn’t getting the job. I was sitting in front of the dugout, still stewing about it a little bit. I shouted something out to one of the players and these four lads behind started taking the p**s out of me because of my accent. So I turned round and, shall we say, I gave them a Kevin Ball special, I gave them it something rotten. I turned round and started watching the game again but I could hear the bench was in hysterics, the lads behind me were open-mouthed as I’d just hammered them.
So I looked round and said “look lads, I’m sorry. I’ve just had a little bit of disappointing news today” (laughs). Everyone p***ed themselves laughing, but it sort of drew a line under it. I just wanted to go back to my job and work as hard as I could to get players into the first team.
RR: What are your thoughts on the new man Simon Grayson?
KB: We’ve had sporadic chats but obviously it’s been a very busy pre-season, so it has been difficult to have a pot of tea and a good gander with him.
Preston in itself is a big club with a rich history, so he understands what’s expected. Simon had Jordan Pickford down there and Jordan spoke very highly of Simon and his time at Preston. So you listen to that and couple it with the fact that I think Simon has learned very quickly what is expected of the players at this club - he’s definitely done his homework. He knows about this club. He’s ‘got it’ very quickly.
In Glynn Snodin we have a very educated coach. He’s also someone who is very vibrant and very bubbly, so you have a great combination. I firmly believe Simon knows what is needed at this club and its also great that he sees being manager of Sunderland as a tremendous honour, which I think is the most important thing.