On this day in 1964, in the seaside town of Hastings on the south coast, a Sunderland AFC legend was born.
Kevin Anthony Ball had to overcome an early disappointment in his effort to become a professional footballer when he was released by Coventry City as a teenager, which led to a return to the south coast when he signed from Portsmouth in 1982.
His League debut would finally come for Pompey soon after his nineteenth birthday when Bobby Campbell put his faith in the young central defender in January 1984. Four months later, the fortunes of Portsmouth would improve significantly with the managerial appointment of Kevin’s namesake – and 1966 England World Cup winner – Alan Ball.
After narrowly missing out on promotion to the top flight, thanks to two successive fourth-place finishes, Portsmouth and Kevin Ball finally achieved promotion when they finished runners-up to Arthur Cox’s Derby County in 1986-87. At the same time, Sunderland were relegated to the Third Division for the first-ever time.
Financial trouble at Fratton Park over the next couple of years meant inevitable relegation and, in 1990, as Portsmouth languished in Division Two mid-table mediocrity, Sunderland were promoted to the First Division – after only two seasons back in the second tier.
Denis Smith had a rather modest transfer kitty available, and needed to wheel and deal to strengthen the squad for Sunderland’s first adventure in the top tier in five years. The two positions at the top of the manager’s shortlist were in central defence to replace the ageing John MacPhail, and at the other end of the field a striker to replace the veteran Gates.
During Sunderland’s promotion season, Smith’s side drew 3-3 away to Portsmouth in December. With Sunderland leading with ten minutes to go, up stepped Ball to net the equaliser for John Gregory’s team.
Maybe this stayed with the Sunderland manager, as when it came to acquiring someone to partner Gary Bennett at the back he made his move for the Hastings-born stopper.
For £350,000, Kevin Ball signed for Sunderland in June 1990 and Denis Smith had got his man:
From the moment he signed Bally was brilliant in training, on the pitch and a fantastic presence in the dressing room. For a lad of 5’9” Kevin stood proud. He was a gritty competitor who got stuck in, mostly fairly, although he developed a reputation amongst the supporters, who defined him as a hard man who would die for the cause.
In his debut season, Ball missed only five League games in the heart of the Sunderland defence – four due to suspension thanks to a couple of red cards – as Sunderland were relegated despite fighting bravely until the final day of the season at Maine Road. The fans took to him immediately, as did his peers – both the official player of the year and supporters’ player of the year awards both went to Ball in his first season.
After relegation from the First Division, Sunderland’s fortunes suffered a slump as managers came and went and, other than a surprise run to the FA Cup Final in 1992, things looked bleak as the club floundered in Division Two.
One thing however, did remain constant throughout the reigns of Malcolm Crosby, Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton – and that was that Kevin Ball was always the first name on the teamsheet.
In fact, he never started fewer than thirty-four games in all competitions during a full season in his time on Wearside.
It would be Mick Buxton who first experimented with the idea of converting the central defender into a defensive midfielder, which gave him a new lease of life as he approached 30s, as his former manager Denis Smith commented:
Kevin developed into a wonderfully destructive defensive midfielder. Bally became known as ‘the Hatchet’ and was the kind of player opposing managers love to hate. Terry Venables once said of Kevin that “he had the touch of a blacksmith”. I always felt that sort of statement was a backhanded compliment because what Venables was actually doing was challenging Kevin to stop playing his natural game.
This change of position and development continued as Peter Reid took over at Roker Park in March 1995 and the now defensive midfielder was instrumental in helping the new manager save the club from dropping into the third tier and then winning promotion to the Premier League by claiming the Endsleigh League Division One title in 1996.
By the time he left to join Fulham in 1999, Kevin Ball had notched up another championship and 388 appearances for the club. He also won the supporters’ player of the year trophy on four occasions – 1990-91, 1992-93, 1994-95 and 1996-97 – and has the dubious honour of being joint runner-up with Gary Bennett for the most red cards for the club, behind a certain Lee Cattermole.
At the beginning of his tenth season with the club he was handed a testimonial at the Stadium of Light, where Sunderland hosted Sampdoria.
After spells at Fulham and Burnley, he returned to Sunderland where his roles have covered a spectrum of coaching and ambassadorial roles, and have included the position of caretaker manager twice, following Mick McCarthy in 2006 and Paolo Di Canio in 2013.
His relationship with the club has now spanned thirty years – and Sunderland without Kevin Ball just wouldn’t be the same.