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On This Day (31st July 1999): The Italians arrive to pay homage to Sunderland’s captain!

Ahead of his tenth season on Wearside, captain extraordinaire Kevin Ball was awarded a much deserved testimonial and it was Italian side Sampdoria who were in town get the party started.

Photo by Adam Davy/EMPICS via Getty Images

A significant date that potentially put the wheels in motion for what turned out to be a relationship with the club that spanned almost 30 years, was actually 16th December 1989.

Even though the day’s events were to play out at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park, it was an unsurprisingly cold day as Denis Smith’s Sunderland side travelled to the south coast sitting 3rd in Division Two, and were looking to close the seven point gap to Sheffield United and Leeds United who occupied the two automatic promotion places.

The afternoon began badly when Martin Kuhl converted a penalty after just five minutes, but goals from Gary Bennett, former Pompey full-back Paul Hardyman and Marco Gabbiadini put the Lads 3-1 up ten minutes into the second half.

A minute later, Steve Wigley pulled one back for the hosts and with ten minutes remaining, a Portsmouth central defender by the name of Kevin Ball bravely won the header from a corner to claim a point for John Gregory’s side.

Kevin Ball
Kevin Ball
Getty Images

It was the sort of determination and bravery that was right up the Sunderland manager’s street and around seven months later, on the 12th July 1990, Smith convinced the board to part with £350,000 to bring the 25-year-old to Roker, and as the former Stoke City defender announced his delight at confirming the signature he also described the lengths he went to gather the funds:

Kevin is a winner. He’s strong, quick, confident and a good organiser. By the time I’m finished we will be borrowing money from the bank. The board have gone a long way to meeting what I have asked for, because we know we have got to go in there being able to compete.

Meanwhile, Hastings-born Ball also spoke of his move to the north-east:

I’m a southern lad, but a few things have tempted me to come up here, first division football being one of them. I’ve signed a four-year contract, which is a long time for any player to tie himself to one club, but I intend to see it through.

He was of course understating that four years is a long time in football, so fast forward nine years (with seven as captain), five managers, two relegations, two league titles, one FA Cup final, a play-off final defeat, a move of stadium and one League Cup semi-final later, it was fully deserving that Ball was awarded a testimonial - which was fittingly the first to be hosted at the Stadium of Light.

Vincenzo Montella’s Sampdoria would provide the opposition, but in the months between the announcement and the game itself the Blucerchiati had surprisingly been relegated from Serie A to play in the second tier of Italian football for the first time since 1982.

Italian Soccer - Serie A - Cagliari v Sampdoria
Ariel Ortega spent one year at Sampdoria that ended in relegation from Serie A
Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

It was a sudden decline for a side who had only seven years prior reached the European Cup final where they were famously beaten by Barcelona at Wembley. After twelve seasons finishing in the top half of Serie A, that also included a league title in 1990-91, and considering players such as Christian Karembeu and Clarence Seedorf were on the books in the mid-1990’s, this was some fall from grace.

The big name in the Sampdoria ranks during their nightmare season that resulted in the dreaded drop to Serie B was Argentinian Ariel Ortega, who Peter Reid had been targeting as a potential signing - which you can read all about here - but any hopes of the fans in attendance being able to witness Ortega in action for either club were dashed when he signed for Parma.

It was also a strange atmosphere around Sunderland, who were preparing for what would be the first Premier League action at the new stadium since leaving Roker Park. Charging to the title the previous year by a margin of 18 points, anticipation was high, but the summer had seen Lee Clark and Michael Bridges exit the club, plus Allan Johnston was now out of Peter Reid’s plan due to a contract dispute.

The only new signing in the starting XI against the Italians was former Arsenal defender Steve Bould, where the 36-year-old would partner Paul Butler in the back four. Thomas Helmer had arrived from Bayern Munich on a free transfer and the 35-year-old took a place on the bench and new record signing Stefan Schwarz was unable to make his Sunderland debut as a result of tweaking a thigh muscle in his first training session with the club.

Steve Bould
New signing Steve Bould took to the field for the first time as a Sunderland player on home soil for the visit of Sampdoria in 1999
Getty Images

The game itself was a bit flat - much like the weather. where cooler conditions than the average temperatures for that time of year suggested, resulted in the sea fret lingering over the pitch ahead of kick-off that would eventually burn off. The only real opener was a 77th minute howler from Kevin Phillips, of all people, who couldn’t find the target when it was perhaps easier to score than not.

New £1.8m signing from Lyngby, Carsten Fredgaard, who was incidentally one of five nominations for Denmark’s Player of the Year in the summer of 1999, had half an hour run out after replacing Chris Lumsdon on the hour.

Helmer replaced Butler at the break so the crowd could view all of the experience of a central defence that had a combined age of 71, and the German almost won it for the Lads in the final minute but headed over the bar. Eric Roy, who was on trial with the club and would eventually sign also made an appearance with Reid commenting after the game:

He’s a good, strong player, who looks comfortable on the ball and he has been excellent both during the game and in training. I don’t think he’d cost heavy money because of the service he’s given Marseille. I’m still looking and hopeful of bringing in a couple more before the start of the season.

It finished goalless and in a little bit of orchestrated drama to provide the man of the hour with a moment to remember from the afternoon, there was a sudden death penalty shoot-out to decide the winner. The only problem was, however, that someone hadn’t informed Marco Ambrosio, who had replaced of future Ipswich Town goalkeeper Matteo Sereni for the last quarter of the game, of the intended script - resulting in him saving Ball’s penalty.

Kevin Ball
Kevin Ball in action in his testimonial against Sampdoria in July 1999
Getty Images

At this point, even some of his teammates were aiming questioning looks in his direction and it left Sampdoria’s new signing Francesco Flachi the unenviable task of fully completing the p*ssing on Bally’s parade - which he did, by converting his penalty to claim victory for the Italian side.

Kevin Ball being Kevin Ball was more concerned about the real stuff starting up again the following week with an away fixture at Chelsea to kick-off the new campaign:

We’ve enjoyed our pre-season and we’ve worked very hard in it. But let’s face facts, points aren’t awarded for results in pre-season. That’s strictly for getting ourselves fit and the team preparations.

The big games start next Saturday against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It was a day that I enjoyed and savoured because too many times things tend to go above your head and you can’t remember any of it.

Saturday 31st July, 1999

Friendly (Kevin Ball Testimonial)

Stadium of Light

Sunderland 0-0 Sampdoria

[Sampdoria won sudden death penalty shoot-out]

Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Bould, Butler (Helmer), Gray, Summerbee, Ball (Roy), Rae, Lumsdon (Fredgaard), Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Marriott, Holloway ,Williams, Craddock, Wainwright

Sampdoria: Sereni (Ambrosio), Hogo, Tosto, Doriva (Flachi), Palmieri, Vasari (Cate), Casale, Ficini, Sakic, Esposito, Stendardo Substitutes not used: Pesaresi, Vergassola, Sinagna, Zivkovic, Matzuzzi, Iacopino, Sgro

Attendance: 27,506


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