John McCormick is among Kevin Ball’s admirers. But, as Gus Poyet sets about the mammoth task of saving Sunderland AFC from relegation and Ellis Short ponders the club structure from top to bottom, he argues that the time may have come for Bally to move on. Not everyone will agree …
We all know the Niall Quinn quotation:
“I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City but Sunderland got under my skin”
What might Bally say?
“I played my first senior game at Portsmouth but learned my trade at Sunderland, became a footballer at Sunderland, gave my all to Sunderland”?
Kevin Ball has come to epitomise all we cherish in the club. Diligence, perseverance, craft, guts, effort and more skill than many fans credit him with. He deserves every piece of praise sent his way and more besides. His relationship with the fans is just one of the attributes recognised by Ellis Short and it would seem that he will continue to have a role at the club whatever happens in the future.
Or will he? Will Bally stay until retirement, like Steve Heighway at Liverpool’s Academy, or will he go? I don’t know, but here’s why I think he could leave.
Twice the bridesmaid
Being faint of memory I consulted the web. This is what Wikipedia had to say on Bally’s first tenure:
“Between 6 March and 8 May 2006 Ball acted as Sunderland caretaker manager for the last ten games of the 2005–06 season following the sacking of Mick McCarthy, taking five points from these games. Although Ball expressed his interest in the manager’s job on a full-time basis, incoming chairman Niall Quinn was keen for the club to appoint a ‘world-class manager’ following the club’s takeover by the Drumaville Consortium, ruling Ball out of the running”
I’m not a fan of Wikipedia but I think that’s an accurate summation. Then this season, for the second time and under a second chairman, Kevin Ball was put to one side. No doubt Ellis Short had his reasons. Ball might accept them. On the face of it he does but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some subtle shift in his feelings towards the club’s management. A failure to gain a desired post is often rationalised by judgements, deserved or not, about the decision makers. Bonds are broken and people resolve to go.
His clock is ticking
Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez are around 40. Gus Poyet is around 45. Kevin Ball is approaching 50. David Moyes and Michael Laudrup are a similar age but both have been managing for over ten years, the latter with quite a bit of success. Ball has tasted management and evidently likes it but if he doesn’t get a move on he won’t be going anywhere.
He has no prospect of managing at Sunderland.
Does anyone think Poyet will be sacked in the next two years? If he is will Bally get the job full-time? No he won’t. Not a chance. Ellis Short has already passed him over and he’ll be too old when the opportunity arises again. Gus Poyet is reported as saying Ball has a pivotal role “He doesn’t know yet, how important he is going to be for me”. But I wonder how long that will last. The new manager has brought in his new team, fitting it in to a club structure that was built with minimal input from Ball. Kevin Ball can stay where he is or he can leave, but where else in the club can he go? Nowhere, as far as I can see.
Is he likely to be pushed?
The changes hinted at above have been far-reaching. No problem there, our Senior Development Coach should be able to work within any system. The aim should be, a-la Barcelona, a continuous flow of kids who are nurtured in a single style of football throughout their development so they can make a seamless transition to the first team.
We haven’t quite got there, however, and Kevin Ball’s record is not good in this respect. I’m not blaming him for this, I think the whole English academy system is a failure, but that doesn’t hide the fact that in his time as academy boss/development chief there has been a dearth of players coming through. For years we’ve been borrowing players from clubs like Man Utd and Spurs and loaning players to clubs like Burton and Woking before moving them out. Ellis Short might have recently praised our caretaker manager but he has also tried to balance the books. If he has to keep buying players he could once again decide to act ruthlessly, this time to hire someone he thinks will do a better job of bringing on young ones. In such circumstances is Ball likely to jump before he is pushed?
I repeat, I don’t know. I’m 170 miles away from Sunderland. I don’t watch goings on in training sessions, I don’t get the gossip; and who has any idea what’s going on in the boardroom or in the minds of Ellis Short and Gus Poyet? As for Kevin Ball himself, how keen will he be to step out of the comfort zone that SAFC still represents? He’s had a taste of management and he likes it. If he wants to go in that direction he’ll have to do it soon. With his experience and passion there must be a dozen clubs that would love to have him as a coach. Maybe, with or without encouragement, he’ll make that step.
I do think we need, and will have, a period of stability but I think there will be more changes sooner or later. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Kevin Ball is not on the staff a few months from now.
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* Photo of Kevin Ball, if you can actually make him out, is used with the usual thanks to therokerend.com, website of the Sunderland Formers Players Association.