Reflections on Alan Ball at Blackpool

Last updated : 22 May 2007 By Gerry Wolstenholme

Reflections on Alan Ball at Blackpool

Gerry Wolstenholme

I had just returned to the ward in Blackpool's Victoria Hospital having undergone major heart surgery when the chap in an adjacent bed announced in a loud voice "Alan Ball has died of a heart attack." His loudness was due to the fact that he had earphones on, so was unaware how loud he was speaking. I could not believe it and the irony was that I had just been similarly suffering myself but, hopefully, had been saved by the triple by-pass that had just been performed. I laid there in shock and was sorry that I was unable, immediately, to pay tribute to one of the game's finest players. However, I now have that opportunity.

Alan Ball was born in Farnworth on 12 May 1945 and, having played for Farnworth Grammar School, he was blooded at age 14 in the Cheshire League with Ashton United, where Alan Ball senior, from whom Ball got his passion for the game, was manager. He played eight times for Ashton before having trials with Bolton Wanderers and Wolverhampton Wanderers. But it was Blackpool who signed him as an amateur in September 1961.

He made an immediate impact at Bloomfield Road, scoring in a convincing 6-3 win over Chester in the First Round of the FA Youth Cup on 9 October 1961 and he later impressed as a 16 year-old in Blackpool's FA Youth Cup Tie with Preston North End in November 1961. He was prophetically described as "a veritable human dynamo with the confidence and skill to draw and beat a man and a promising flair for positional play" with "an insatiable appetite for work and was willing to get stuck in".

Blackpool eventually exited the Youth Cup that season against Liverpool on 13 December 1961 but even then Ball was "an energetic and clever inside forward" as Blackpool lost 2-1.

Not wanting to miss out on his signature or allow another club to nip in and poach him, Blackpool signed him as a professional on 12 May 1962, his 17th birthday. And he made his League debut, as Blackpool's youngest debutant to that time, on the opening day of the 1962/63 season at Liverpool on 22 August 1962. His only previous experience of competitive football for the club had been in the Youth Cup and the Lancashire League but manager Ronnie Suart had no hesitation in calling on him to replace the injured 'Mandy' Hill on the right wing. Ball said, "I feel champion about getting picked. I've heard a lot about the Anfield roar but I don't think it will affect me." He then gave an all-action display that was to become his trademark as Blackpool won 2-1.

He kept his place for four games and then played once more against Nottingham Forest on 3 September 1962 when Blackpool won 2-1. Thereafter he went into the reserve side for his first taste of Central League football. He made his debut at that level against Leeds United reserves on 15 September 1962 when Blackpool won 2-1 and after four games at outside right in the Central League side he was moved to inside right for the game against Derby County reserves on 10 November 1962 when Blackpool won 3-2.

In his first professional season at Blackpool he played five League games and 27 Central League games, scoring eight goals and in the following season's practice game on 19 August 1963 he "took the eye at inside right" as the Tangerines defeated the Whites 4-3. He started the 1963/64 season at inside right in the Central League side but after just six games he was promoted to the first team and he never looked back.

Early in that 1963/64 season the Blackpool management forecast that England Under-23 international honours would be coming his way later in that season or early the following season at the latest. The selectors had watched him twice by late October 1963 and were apparently impressed on both occasions. Manager Ronnie Suart commented, "A great prospect and I know the selectors are aware of him. But I have a feeling it may be next season before they call on him."

He continued to live in Farnworth and make the round trip to train at Blackpool as late as December 1963 and he said, "In a place like Blackpool there is always someone asking you to have a drink or a night out. I believe that to get to the top in football you have to make sacrifices. For me, smoking and drinking are out. In digs you could creep in at midnight or later without anyone knowing. If I come in at half past ten, Dad says 'What time is this to come in? Get up those stairs.' He keeps a grip on me. So does Mother. I wouldn't stay out in any case but it is good to have someone keeping an eye on you. I like staying in. We talk soccer, watch television, play chess - I usually lick Dad and he gets furious - or play records, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, that kind of stuff."

In a 4-1 friendly game victory over Manchester City on 25 January 1964 he "had a match and a half, one or two of his passes went wrong but on the ball he was as elusive as a wasp at a summer picnic, scored a great goal and was in the raids that produced two of the others". At the close of the 1963/64 season, in which he played 31 League games, scoring 13 goals, two FA Cup ties, one League Cup tie, scoring one goal, and seven Central League games, scoring two goals, he was regarded as Blackpool's find of the season and in many circles he was even considered to be the best forward find in the country.

He was selected for the England Under-23 tour of Hungary, Turkey and Israel in the summer of 1964 and he was naturally delighted with his selection, especially pleased for his father. He commented "Dad didn't achieve any international recognition, but even if he had I don't think he'd have been so happy about it as he is about this. He's over the moon about it." In the event he did not play in any of the three games.

He was being classed along with Denis Law in September 1964 and one (unnamed) First Division manager said, "If he's not Law, he's the nearest English approach to Law." But there was no easy road to the soccer summit for him for he was developing a reputation as a bad boy. By September 1964, he had already been booked twice, nevertheless he had, by that time, set his sights on being an established member of the England team by 1966, World Cup year.

He took his first step to full international honours when he made his England Under-23 debut against Wales at Wrexham on 4 November 1964 when England won 3-2 and later that month, back in action for Blackpool on 21 November, he scored a hat trick, and earned a booking, in the 3-3 draw at Fulham 1964. He was delighted and remarked "I felt I passed a little examination at Fulham when I got a hat-trick for Blackpool in a 3-3 draw. It was my first since becoming a Football League player." He finished the month with his first international goal in the Under-23 international against Rumania at Coventry on 25 November when England won 5-0. But in December 1964 he received a 14-day ban after an FA hearing and he was the first Blackpool player to be banned under the new FA code of conduct. He finished the 1964/65 season having played in 39 League games, scoring 11 goals, one FA Cup tie, scoring one goal, and two League Cup ties, scoring one goal.

He was capped at full international level for England during the 1965 summer tour, making his debut against Yugoslavia in Belgrade when the game was drawn 1-1 and he "showed no nerves in his first international". He went on to play in a 1-0 defeat of West Germany at Nuremberg and a 2-1 victory over Sweden in Stockholm on the tour. In the game against Sweden he scored his first senior international goal but he was later sent off.

He had a contractual dispute with Blackpool after the 1964/65 season and he put in a transfer request. Blackpool eventually kept him by holding him to a 12-month option clause that was in his contract, plus a generous pay rise. And after much speculation about a transfer, at the 1965 Blackpool Annual General Meeting manager Ronnie Suart stressed, "There will be no question of Alan Ball leaving this club if we can prevent it."

On the international front, he scored in his final appearance for the England Under-23 side in a 3-0 victory over France at Norwich on 3 November 1965. He had played eight times at that level and scored two goals.

In November 1965 there were reports of a £100,000 bid for him by Everton manager Harry Catterick. An enraged Ronnie Suart said, "Complete and utter nonsense. No such offer has been made and I repeat what I said at the annual meeting of the club - we are not parting with Alan Ball." Having calmed down a little he went on to say that Mr Catterick had been in touch with him but no figures had been mentioned. "The conversation didn't last long enough for us to talk about money. I simply told him that Ball was not for transfer and the conversation ended there," said Mr Suart.

He missed just one League game in the 1965/66 season and that the last of the campaign. He played in 41 games, scoring 16 goals, two FA Cup ties and two League Cup ties, scoring one goal. He also played in four international games. But as the season ended, it was regarded as "D for Danger" day for Blackpool as Ball approached his 21st birthday because, under Football League regulations, players had the right to negotiate a new contract when they came within three months of their 21st birthday. Everything pointed to Ball re-signing, providing that his wages were increased and in May 1966 Blackpool made him an improved offer and he was "thinking it over" although the consensus of opinion was that he would not accept it. Suart said, "It is indeed a generous one. I can't say more than that because we feel this is a matter between the player and the club." However, the offer was believed to be a £10,000 signing-on fee plus £100 per week for two years with a two-year option. The critics reported, "Every glamour club in the land is after his signature."

He achieved his ambition by being in the England side for the World Cup campaign and he played in four of the six games in the final stages. His appearance in the World Cup Final 4-2 victory over West Germany was his last as a Blackpool player. He had appeared 14 times for England while with the club. Blackpool's Mayor Councillor Robert Brierley JP gave a civic reception for Ball and Jimmy Armfield, England's two World Cup players, in the Mayor's parlour at the Town Hall on 5 August 1966. At the reception the Mayor paid tribute to Ball and Armfield and presented them both with a set of gold cufflinks inscribed 'World Cup 1966'. In doing so he said, "We were all emotionally involved following you in the last few weeks. Everybody in Blackpool was thrilled when the final whistle went on Saturday and England had won the World Cup. We were very proud that we in Blackpool had a share in the triumph through two such fine footballers. Jimmy Armfield, as captain of Blackpool, has set a high standard in personality and sportsmanship." To Alan Ball he remarked, "Someone once said to me that you had poetry flowing from your boots. We were thrilled by the way you performed on the field. I can only add that everybody in this room is proud you belong to Blackpool." A rather shy Alan Ball simply said, "It is a wonderful present and one I will always keep. Thank you very much."

Even while he attended the Mayor's reception, all was not well on the Blackpool front with Ball. He was reported as "still wanting a move" and he had said to the press, "The position hasn't changed. I still want to move. I have not accepted Blackpool's new offer, and there is little likelihood of my doing so. But I shall be having a talk with my father this weekend before giving the club my decision." Apparently Blackpool had turned down an offer of £105,000 from Leeds United as they were looking more towards £120,000 even though Ball had been offered what was termed "a highly attractive contract" to remain at Bloomfield Road. Ball said on hearing this statement, "If no more offers have been received, I shall just have to stay here, and hope that an offer will come along that Blackpool will accept." And manager Ron Suart remarked, "I have had a chat with Ball but there is really nothing new to report. We will be waiting for a few days for his decision, until he has seen his father, who is in Ireland."

He attended Bloomfield Road for pre-season training and his final game for the club was a pre-season friendly against Preston North End at Deepdale when Blackpool won 2-1 on 8 August 1966. He was present for the return friendly game against Preston North End on 15 August 1966 but he watched the game from the bench, as Everton manager Harry Catterick asked for him not to play, as he wanted to talk to him about a possible transfer. By the end of the game (which Blackpool won 2-0) he had been transferred to Everton for a then record transfer fee of £112,000. Ronnie Suart commented, "I had no idea the offer was coming from Everton. It all started with a lunchtime telephone call from Mr Catterick." The Everton manager and chairman then motored over to Blackpool to finalise the transfer deal and to talk to the player. Ball consulted his father and took two hours to decide to join Everton, who it was rumoured had to pay a £10,000 signing-on fee for his signature. Ball said of the move, "It is a big club, with big crowds and great traditions. That is what decided me." Suart's final word on the matter was "I am disappointed, I had hoped he would be playing for us next season." And Leeds United manager Don Revie commented, "I am disappointed he has gone to Everton, but that is it. It is not the end of the world. We have a good team at Leeds and we shall soldier on without him." He added, "We matched Everton's offer but Ball apparently preferred Everton."

He went on to have s a superb career with Everton, Arsenal, Southampton and England before, in March 1980, he was appointed Blackpool player-manager with a three-year contract but bizarrely he was not to take up the appointment at close range for some time. The reason was that he became the first man to manage a League club while playing for another at the same time, as he was to continue to play for Southampton until later in March 1980. And indeed Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy told Ball's wife that if he was in the country on 22 March 1980 he would be called upon to play for Southampton against Nottingham Forest on that day. Ball therefore went directly to North America on 21 March 1980 after Blackpool had failed to persuade Vancouver Whitecaps manager Tony Waiters to delay his departure so that he could sort out one or two things at Blackpool. Ball's contract with Vancouver Whitecaps, as had been agreed before he took the Blackpool job, was on a short-term transfer and not a loan period and Southampton agreed that they would relinquish his contract once he had joined the Canadian side. Blackpool paid Southampton £25,000 in compensation for allowing Ball to join the club.

He got his hands on the Blackpool player-manager job full-time in July 1980 and his former team-mate at Everton Howard Kendall, who had gone into management with Blackburn Rovers, commented, "His presence will improve the players around him, after a settling in period, but when he's out there he has such a great reputation that maybe at first they'll look to him for a lot of things and, if it's going badly, he may find players aren't expressing themselves the way they should, until they accept the fact that the boss is on the field with them. But, he's also just one of the players. As for the fans, they'll back him at the start, but the have to be convinced. They can turn round and lost faith in you - and if that happens, it's a time when you haven't to panic, for that leads to mistakes. If you believe in something, stick to it; and get as many good pros behind you as you can. Remember, too, that while you're a player as well as a manager, you have to get out and see a lot of games so that you know the players you're thinking of burying. Because it's vital for clubs such as Blackpool and the Rovers to spend cash wisely. I wish Alan Ball luck - but I know that, as happened with me, he'll find there are never enough hours in a day to do everything he feels should be done. Knowing Bally, though, I reckon he's a good chance of making it."

In the pre-season practice games he found that players were too often Ball-watching in that they were looking for him every time they got the ball. It was an obsession they soon conquered and Ball said, "It was difficult for them at first. They started channelling everything through me, instead of playing their own game, but we soon got over it." He made his reappearance for Blackpool in the Anglo-Scottish Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers on 30 July 1980 when Blackpool won 2-0 and he made his League comeback for the club in the opening game of the season, a 2-1 victory over Swindon Town on 16 August 1980 when he played a significant part in the win that earned him the headline in The Green BALLY SAVES POOL'S BACON.

There was speculation about him leaving Blackpool to take on the Everton manager's job in August 1980 but Ball ended it all by saying, "I've never ducked out of a contract in my life and I don't intend to start now. I've only ever asked for a transfer once in my whole career. I believe contracts are to be honoured. I have signed for Blackpool for three years and I will see it out. At least it is nice to know that while other people regard a manager's job as insecure reports are going round that I could land such a job." Replying to an open letter sent by 14 fans to The Green, Ball commented, "Tell them I've signed a long-term contract and I'm enjoying it at Blackpool."

And in October 1980 he was linked with the vacant Manchester City manager's post following the resignation of Malcolm Allison but he commented, "It's a thought and obviously I would have to consider such an offer if it was made. But at the moment it is only hypothetical." And so it remained.

After Blackpool had lost 2-0 at Brentford on 28 February 1981 his relationship with the directors and the fans soured a little and he resigned the post at the request of the directors. He commented, "It has been obvious for a while that the board didn't fancy me. I'm disappointed I was not allowed to do the job for which I was appointed - to rebuild the whole club right down to the kids, out of the ruins that had been left." In his second spell at the club he played 30 League games, scoring five goals, two FA Cup ties, three League Cup ties and three Anglo-Scottish Cup ties.

He later returned to Southampton and had spells with Eastern of Hong Kong and Bristol Rovers before being appointed youth team coach at Portsmouth in the 1983/84 season. He was promoted to manager in May 1984, a post he held until July 1988. Thereafter he continued as first-team coach until January 1989 and then went on to manage Southampton, Exeter City and Manchester City.

In March 2005 he commented on his time at Blackpool as manager. He said, "When a club like Blackpool offered to give me a start in management, what else could I say but 'yes'? Jack Charlton, a good friend, had offered me a coaching role at Sheffield Wednesday and with hindsight I should have done that instead, got a bit of experience under my belt. Another thing I should have done was kept Stan Ternent on. I replaced him as manager but he was very good, I've a lot of respect for him, and I should have asked him to stay and help me. I think I was a bit bigheaded, a little headstrong and I thought being a player-manager would be no problem for me. It was a lot more difficult than I thought, not helped by dealing with the boardroom." Of the arrangement that saw him manage the club from afar he commented, "It didn't make it easy. I was proud that we didn't go down that season though. And when I was back at Blackpool full time for the start of the next season I was pleased with some of my achievements. We brought through some great kids and I signed Paul Stewart and David Bardsley. It gave me a bit of comfort to know that despite the fact that I wasn't exactly a success as manager, at least the club were able to make a lot of money when they sold those two players. I felt I didn't do Blackpool justice, which I was upset about because I wanted to, especially after my happy times there as a player. I gave it my all but I think, with hindsight, I just wasn't ready for it. But I never make excuses. I didn't deliver, although the experience stood me in good stead for the rest of my management career."

He was always an honest professional, a lively personality and he will be sadly missed by family, former team-mates, friends and football supporters throughout the land. His infectious love of the game endeared him to everyone and his wholehearted attitude can best be summed up by an early quote of his (and the emphasis is his own), which was "I HATE to lose - even at tiddlywinks!" Rest in Peace Alan Ball.