A Blast from the Past – Alan Ball
Alan James Ball, MBE (12 May 1945 – 25 April 2007)
Born in Farnworth, Lancashire, he was the youngest member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team and played for various clubs, scoring more than 180 league goals in a career spanning 22 years. His playing career also included a then national record £220,000 transfer from Everton to Arsenal at the end of 1971. After retiring as a player, he had a 15-year career as a manager which included spells in the top flight of English football.
Ball started his football career as a schoolboy, playing for Ashton United a team his father managed in the Lancashire Combination. While still at school (Farnworth Grammar School) he acquired a youth contract with Wolverhampton Wanderers. After he left school, Wolves decided not to take him on; and he started training with Bolton Wanderers but they also decided against signing him to a professional contract as manager Bill Ridding thought he was too small.
Blackpool signed him after Ball’s father called in a favour with the coach; Ball was given a trial in September 1961 and was signed up as an apprentice. He turned professional in May 1962, making his Football League debut on 18 August 1962 against Liverpool at Anfield in a 2–1 victory. At age 17 years and 98 days, he became Blackpool’s youngest League debutant. On 21 November 1964, Ball scored his first hat-trick as a professional, in a 3–3 draw with Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Despite being in a struggling Blackpool team, Ball’s industry, stamina and distribution were noticed by England manager Alf Ramsey, who gave him his international debut on 9 May 1965 in a 1–1 draw with Yugoslavia in Belgrade, three days before his twentieth birthday. Ramsey was preparing for the World Cup a year later, which England was to host. Ball’s performances in the 1966 World Cup winning England team attracted the attention of a number of clubs bigger than Blackpool, Ball eventually being sold to Everton for a fee of £112,000 in August 1966.
Everton reached the 1968 FA Cup Final, but lost to West Bromwich Albion and were knocked out by Manchester City in the semi-finals the following year. Ball was instrumental in the team which won his first and only major domestic honour in the game as Everton took the 1969–70 Football League Championship title.
On 22 December 1971, Arsenal paid a record fee of £220,000 to take Ball to Highbury.
“I remember thinking that he must have been some player to wear those white boots – and Alan Ball was some player.” It’s hard to disagree with the words of David O’Leary.
Ball’s arrival at Highbury in December 1971 was big news. Arsenal had just done the Double and Arsenal’s manager Bertie Mee worried about the player’s ability to keep motivated so he splashed out a British record transfer fee to land the World Cup-winning England star. He was 26 years of age and at his peak for both form and fitness when he joined Arsenal; he made his debut against Nottingham Forest on 27 December 1971. However, Arsenal could not defend their League title in 1971/72 and also lost FA Cup when Leeds United beat them 1–0 in the centenary final at Wembley.
Ball had continued to play for Arsenal through all this time, as a near-constant member of the first team at first, including 50 appearances in 1972–73. A natural leader, Ball took on the captaincy at the start of the 1973/74 campaign and became Arsenal’s most influential performer as the Double side of 1971 fragmented and a new generation of players – including Liam Brady – began to emerge. In April 1974 Ball broke his leg, resulting in his missing the start of the 1974/75 season, in which Arsenal finished 16th. Ball also missed the start of the 1975/76 season after an injury in the pre-season friendly at Crewe Alexandra, Arsenal subsequently finished in 17th place that season. Bertie Mee resigned as Arsenal manager in the summer of 1976 and new manager Terry Neill wanted to take the club in a new direction. Now aged 31, Ball continued to play for Arsenal until December 1976, when he was sold to Southampton for a fee of £60,000. In total he made 217 appearances for the Gunners, scoring 52 goals.
Ball was awarded an MBE in 2000 for his services to football’
Ball, aged 61, died in the early hours of 25 April 2007 at his home in Warsash, Hampshire, following a heart attack. He suffered the fatal heart attack while attempting to put out a blaze in his garden that had started when a bonfire – on which he had earlier been burning garden waste – re-ignited and spread to a nearby fence. His funeral was held in Winchester Cathedral on 3 May 2007. Many of Ball’s former football colleagues were in attendance and the flat cap that he became famous for wearing was placed on top of his coffin.
“In my opinion he was one of Arsenal’s greatest players of all time,” said Brady. “He helped me greatly and, with David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton and Graham Rix, I feel he contributed a great deal towards our careers, passing on his experience of the game”