At a club where something different seems to happen every day, Kevin Ball has been a reassuring constant for almost thirty years.
Signing for Sunderland just a couple of months after I went to my first game, he has been a major presence since then and is somebody I have always hugely admired.
Constantly leading by example, Ball has sought to drive SAFC forward both on the pitch and after his retirement from playing, showing levels of energy and devotion that only come round every so often.
It is important to remember that Ball is more than a ‘club man’; he was a much better player than many gave him credit for, and was integral to the 1992 FA Cup run and both of Peter Reid’s promotion-winning sides.
During the tough times in between, he was one of the few that regularly shone, and his high levels of consistency meant that during his nine full seasons at the club he was always a first-team regular, never playing less than thirty games in a campaign.
Brought to Sunderland in 1990 by Denis Smith, who presumably saw something of himself in him, Ball was initially played in central defence. Exceptional in the air and able to tackle brilliantly, he was highly regarded by many of his peers and highly feared by many of them too. Often the team’s enforcer, under Mick Buxton he was moved into midfield where he was also encouraged to make more of his passing ability.
Good at using both of his feet and able to time runs into the box, he managed to weigh in with some very good goals too.
Arguably the pick of these was his diving header against Chelsea during the 1996-97 season in which he was named the Supporter Association’s Player of the Year. It was the fourth time he had been given the award, having also received it in 1992-93 and 1994-95, and in 1990-91 when he doubled up and collected the club’s official gong in addition.
Ball’s club captaincy spanned the move from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light and several of his teammates have spoken about how well he performed the role, suggesting that whilst he wasn’t afraid to tell it as it was, he didn’t just go about shouting and screaming all the time.
Although insistent on setting high standards, he was approachable and supportive, and didn’t mind a laugh at the right time. Fully deserving of his Testimonial in 1999, Ball left the club shortly after and turned out for Fulham and Burnley.
It never felt right somehow, seeing him in anything other than Sunderland colours, but after he hung up his boots he quickly returned to the Academy of Light as a coach.
Holding several titles since then, he has twice stepped into the breach and become caretaker manager of the first team.
His first stint in 2006 saw him save the club from the ignominy of going a whole league campaign without a home win and seven years later he took charge again, this time guiding the side through one of their early rounds en route to the Capital One Cup final.
Whilst overseeing the U18s and U23s, Ball was instrumental in the progress of many youngsters, some of whom have reached the very top in the game.
Whilst not all of them went on to become household names though, their development both as players and people meant a lot to him and he remained a mentor long after they had left the club.
It was during this time that I also had a lot of dealings with Ball; through writing youth and reserve updates for the matchday programme I would regularly get to speak to him, and it was always a pleasure. He was generous with his time and always made sure I had what I needed, and in everything he said his desire to see these lads do well and his love of the club always came through.
Since then he has served as a loans manager and has been a superb ambassador, always more than doing his bit for Sunderland AFC.
It is never good when somebody with that level of enthusiasm and commitment leaves the club and whilst I was surprised by the news of his departure, I was pleased to see it announced formally so that supporters have had the chance to make a fuss over him; the response showing the high regard in which he is held.
Kevin Ball will be missed, but I doubt he will ever be forgotten.
Hastings, 12 November 1964
Tottenham Hotspur 0
Roker Park 28 August 1990
Final SAFC appearance:
Watford 2 (Ngonge 4, Johnson 49)
Sunderland 3 (Phillips 24, 33, McCann 70)
Vicarage Road 27 November 1999
Total appearances/goals for SAFC:
375 (+ 13 as sub)/27