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Alan Ball: The Ball of Fire

Here at the Dixie Dean Hotel we like to celebrate our heroes. This article is both a precursor to the imminent unveiling of our statues of leading figures of Merseyside game in the Football Quarter also to celebrate the 53rd anniversary to the day of the derby debut of my personal hero. We give you the one and only Alan Ball.

The One and Only Alan Ball

On July 30th 1966, 11 Englishmen were about to make history by lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy- the World Cup. The youngest player on either side was a winger from Blackpool FC. His name was Alan Ball yet within a month would already have begun a love affair with Everton Football Club and specifically Evertonians that endures undiminished to this day over a decade after his passing. If Dixie Dean is the father of our club then Alan James Ball Junior is its favourite son.

 

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Bally as we would come to know him was born on May 12th 1945 just as the Second World War was winding itself to a close. His was a small family for the time – himself, his sister Pauline and his parents. Alan Snr was a man with a drive for football even greater than that of his son- which is saying something and would later become a league manager at various clubs. Having identified that his boy had a gift Mr. Ball was single-minded- some might even say overbearing in his constant pushing of his son to improve, which of course he did. After school drills even in the worst weather honed the undoubted ability but also tempered a fear-nobody attitude in a lad whom would be 5 5” at his tallest throughout his life yet whom always bore the competitiveness of a hungry lion irrespective of whom or indeed how big his opponent might be. Most of all, Mr. Ball Snr passed on a will to win that would often drive his lad to harsh words, even at times anger with those he played with. Alan Ball cared.

After not finding a club from school incredibly on the basis that he was too small Mr. Ball’s connections got the kid a trial at fellow Lancastrian club Blackpool FC. They of Stanley Matthews, of Stan Mortensen, of Jimmy Armfield. A serious club. In his autobiography Bally states that even at that stage he had a do-or-die mentality. “I knew then as I got stripped that I was about to play for my life.” He must have played well as a professional contract was the upshot and in August 1964 made his first team debut as it turned out, at Anfield. It would be the initial installment of a rivalry that would last a lifetime. In the tunnel as the teams were about to take to the pitch Alan was silently passed a note by Liverpool’s hard-case left back and later member of the Boot-Room team, Ronnie Moran. It read, “Liverpool Infirmary. Evening meal-time…” The game ended 1-2 to the Tangerines.

He had begun to make his mark and would continue to do so. Notable both for his skill and endeavour but also in accumulating bookings and sendings-off as his competitive streak allied to his diminutive stature would ensure that everyone whom took him on would know they had been in a battle. When Bolton Wanderers chose not to sign the local lad prior to his Blackpool trial Alan had said to his father in the car on the way home, “Don’t worry dad. I will play for England by the time I’m 21.” With the impending World Cup to be played in England the following summer the youngster came onto the radar of National team manager Alf Ramsey to the extent that he was chosen for short European tour and would indeed make his England debut before his 21st birthday.

Wingless Wonders

Alf Ramsay was famous for his “Wingless Wonders” concept. He basically wanted what today we would term wing backs- players whom contribute when the team does not have the ball. The young ginger Lancastrian was made for the role and was chosen first for the provisional and then the actual World Cup squad. His father said, “Now get into the team” which was precisely what he did for the tournament opener a goalless draw with Uruguay. However due to a media backlash Ramsay blinked and dropped the youngster although he would return to the side for the quarter final- the famous Bobby Charlton rocket-shot game as England ran out 2-0 winners over Mexico. The kid was back and was retained for the semi-final versus Portugal which ironically was originally intended as being held at Goodison Park but which was switched to the Empire stadium due the involvement of the hosts.

The final itself was simply the biggest game of football that this nation has ever been involved in and as those 11 men took the long walk up the tunnel the number 7 shirt was worn by a young flame-haired kid from Farnworth. The match of course remains the most famous ever played by the English but the details can often get lost. For example, with literally seconds left of normal time the home side lead 2-1 and everybody believed that was that. Only it wasn’t as Wolfgang Weber poked the ball home from a corner for the Germans and extra-time would be required. The country was devastated. It felt like they had been beaten.

What was to occur in extra-time is not only writ large into the annals of the nation which gave birth to the game but also that of World Cup history as Geoff Hurst scores after hitting the bar although with the ball having been deemed by the linesman as over the goal-line before, and with time ticking away Bobby Moore hits a perfect pass over the defence for the onrushing Hurst to complete the first hat-trick in a World Cup final. Should you ever re-watch the game just prior to the phrase, “They think it’s all over. It is now…” look to the top of the screen where you will see the 21 year old right winger in the final minutes of extra-time on that Wembley surface notorious for its energy sapping qualities running with both hands in the air as he screams, “play me in!!!” Alan Ball began the day as the rookie. The baby. He ended it with Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore and indeed Geoff Hurst when asked whom was man-of-the-match all replying, the little ginger haired kid playing right wing.

A World Champion Signs for Everton

Incredibly he would awaken on July 31st as a World Cup champion yet would be transferred from Blackpool FC to Everton then make his debut for his new club by August 20th. There was almost no time for rest and recuperation. The night before his first appearance in blue at Craven Cottage, Fulham he went for a Shandy with fellow midfielder Jimmy Gabriel. Bally later wrote of how the Angel Gabriel impressed upon him both the responsibility but also the blessing of playing football for these supporters. It would never leave him. The match finished in a 0-1 victory for the Toffees. Scorer: A. Ball. Some supporters got into the players carriage on the train home and the new signing was very popular. Upon arrival at Lime Street one fan said to him, “Alan Ball. You’ve been sent by God to Everton to score goals just like that one.” He was off-and-running.

His derby debut- 53 years ago today- August 27th 1966 is in the DNA of our club. The opponents were League champions, Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. Bally scored his first goal after 6 minutes and had 2 by half-time. Everton won the game 3-1 {the third goal scored by Sandy Brown was the first ever by an Everton substitute} and while the kid was already becoming everybody’s favourite it would merely represent a spark to the great fire that this mutual love affair would henceforth become.

The side itself was in transition as Harry Catterick outlined the concept for his second great Everton team. The media had particularly built up the potential friction between fans favourite indeed the player they had named, “The Golden Vision” Alex Young and new signing Alan Ball. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth as Alex would be perhaps Bally’s greatest friend at Everton. In March 1967 the Toffees were drawn at home against Liverpool in the F.A. Cup 5th round. The demand for tickets was unprecedented. Everton announced that they could have sold-out Wembley twice and Liverpool FC announced plans to erect a screen at Liverpool FC to live-broadcast the fixture in an attempt to satisfy the appetite of the fans. There would eventually be 43,000 at Anfield as well as 64,851 at Goodison viewing the fixture.

With the weather horrendous he game itself was significant for three things. The first being that new Everton signing Howard Kendall was in the main stand watching, the second being that game allied with the climate was the usual 80 mile-an-hour derby fare and thirdly that it was settled by a single goal scored in the Park End net by our little ginger talisman. My father gave me a copy of this poem written by a fan when I was a child…

“Said Shankly to Yeatesy, come listen me boy. I’ve devised a great plan that you’re sure to enjoy. Those Everton Toffees their progress we’ll stop and a great celebration be held on the Kop. We’ll cripple young Alex and Harvey as well and on those Toffees I’m sure will tell. The one man left standing will be Brian Labone and he can’t beat 11 men all on his own. But Shankly, oh Shankly your plans they went wrong and the downhearted Kopites could not raise a song. For you had forgotten the greatest of all the r*d-headed dynamo named Alan Ball.

In the 44th minute of goalless report Smith, Yeats and Lawrence flat-footed were caught and the loose ball from Husband with great force was met by the boots of young Ball to the back of the net. So, remember Bill Shankly our team is supreme and yours is the dirtiest I’ve ever seen. Those Liverpool yard-dogs Smith Yeats and St. John are a poor second best to the great Everton.”

Alas the Toffees were eliminated by a last-minute winner at Nottingham Forest in the next round and despite a 12-game unbeaten run earlier in the campaign finish in 6th place in Division 1 yet the evolution continued as the Everton midfield now consisted of Harvey, Kendall and Ball. Bally meanwhile had scored 18 goals in his debut season at Goodison Park.

In August 1967 and for the second consecutive season Everton defeat the reigning champions 3-1 in our opening Goodison fixture- this time Manchester United with Best, Law and Charlton. Alex Young scores twice and Alan Ball once as the Toffees turn on the style for the BBC cameras. The incremental two-steps-forwards-one-step-back persisted for the first half of the season but would begin to blend, begin to formulate into the beauty that Harry Catterick had in his head of youth, movement, skill, power, endeavour and a unity of spirit. It was coming together as the side finished in 5th place but with an ever-growing reputation.

They were more successful in the F.A. Cup reaching the final against West Bromwich Albion- a side they had beaten twice during the season with a 7-3 goal aggregate. Alan Ball had scored 4 of those goals. The showpiece was a disappointment both as regards the game and the result as the Toffees wearing Amber and Blue under-perform and are ultimately defeated by Jeff Astle’s injury time swinger which would prove the only goal of the game. It would be Bally’s only Wembley performance at Everton. He was now however the side’s go-to man and scored 20 goals in total in 40 appearances during a campaign of small margins.

The School of Science

Harry Catterick’s evolution continued as only Gordon West, Brian Labone, Tommy Wright were retained even from the 1966 cup winning team only two years earlier while Johnny Morrissey’s talent, experience and grit merited a return as a new youthful Everton FC emerged alongside Harvey, Kendall and Ball whom Toffees had now christened “The Holy Trinity” as Husband, Hurst, Royle, Whittle and Kenyon become regular fixtures in the X1. The side loses its opening three fixtures then go on a 16-game unbeaten run putting 4 goals past West Ham United, West Bromwich Albion and Queens Park Rangers and 5 past Southampton. They were defeated once in November, once in December then only once more in the next 17 games. In most other seasons it would be championship form although in this exceptional season they finish 3rd behind runaway winners Leeds United meanwhile were defeated in the F.A. Cup semi-final by a last-minute goal. If one were uber-critical one would point at a preponderance of draws that ought to have been converted into wins yet the manager had used 18 players in total, the teams average age was 22 and they would regularly be applauded off the field at both half and full-time. The beauty allied to unstinting endeavour was now undeniable. This was undoubtedly the School of Science and folks just wanted more. Alan Ball had made 49 appearances in total and scored 18 times.

The campaign of 1969-70 is as prominent in the history of Everton Football Club as Dixie Dean’s 60 goals. It is simply who we are. Due to the impending World Cup in Mexico the following summer the Football League brought forward the fixture programme to early August. Everton began with 4 consecutive victories and suffered only two losses in the opening 18 matches as they go top of Division 1 and will remain there for the majority of the season. As regards performance those more informed than myself attest to ’69-70 being more functional, still beautiful but more ruthless and less flamboyant than the previous year. Lowlight of the campaign was a horrendous 0-3 defeat in the home derby. The heartbreak was lessened somewhat however as the Toffees secured a 0-2 triumph at Anfield on the run-in to the title. After the game Bally went looking for Bill Shankly whom was nowhere to be found.

 

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Finally, he puts his head around the dressing room door and shouts to Bally, “0-3 at Goodison. 0-2 here. You’ve been beaten on away goals in any competition in the world,” and walked away with a smile. It was the Toffees who were smiling however and Bally specifically as due to Brian Labone’s injury he would lift the Championship trophy as Everton captain although he walked off the pitch and gave the trophy straight to his captain. Labone in his turn would often quip that the Three Graces- Harvey, Kendall and Ball, aka the Holy Trinity were the only three-man team to ever win the title. He was being sarcastic yet the focus in such a side that was drawn by what remains the greatest English 3-man midfield of all time was conspicuous. They were very, very good. Exceptionally gifted footballers in their own right but as a unit were totally synchronised supremely gifted committed and often sublime. Truly a sight to behold. Bally played 41 games finding the net 12 times to take the Toffees to the championship.

Dixie Dean

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In great spirits Alan Ball and three colleagues- although staggeringly neither Colin Harvey nor Howard Kendall among them were bade farewell from L4 for the defence of the World Cup trophy however the party was soon to run into difficulties. At a pre-tournament acclimatization trip to Colombia and whilst on a visit to a jewellery store in Bogota England captain and Bally’s best friend, Bobby Moore was accused of shoplifting before being taken into custody and detained. It was total sham and later proven to have zero substance but was designed to unsettle the English team. There would later be a stomach bug that would affect England goalkeeper Gordon Banks so badly that he would miss a game. This was either an utterly random event or- in the wake of the Colombia incident, it wasn’t.

England are drawn in the same group as Brazil- perhaps the greatest football team of all-time and suffer an unlucky 0-1 defeat. It is the game of the famous save by Gordon Banks from Pele’s bullet header to the bottom corner which he manages to flick over the bar. It genuinely has to be seen to be believed. The three lions secure qualification in second place from the group before facing old enemy West Germany in the quarter final. This is the game that Gordon Banks is absent with sickness and it tells.  In blistering heat and after taking a 2-0 lead and looking relatively comfortable Sir Alf Ramsay takes off Bobby Charlton to rest him for the semi-final. Alas that move frees up Franz Beckenbauer- erstwhile man-marker of Charlton whom proceeds to run the game and ushers the Germans to a famous 3-2 triumph in extra time. For the players and indeed the nation it was a heart breaker.

Back on Goodison Road

Back on Goodison Road everyone was waiting for the new season although even from the start it wasn’t quite the same. Results began to be a struggle whereas before they had followed as a matter of course and with 6 games gone the side lay in the bottom 3. One bright spot is the return of the European Cup to Everton Football Club as we are drawn against Icelandic champions Keflavik as Alan Ball becomes the first Evertonian to score a European hat-trick as we go through over two-legs.

With the domestic programme providing little optimism we draw German champions Borussia Muncheongladbach in round 2. Containing Gunther Netzer and Bertie Vogts they are an excellent team. With Alan Ball as our proud captain- I have a signed picture in my living room of himself and Netzer at the toss-up, a 1-1 draw in Germany is deemed a good result. In the return leg however despite a first minute goal for Everton the German team equalise and despite many half-chances and near misses the game ends in deadlock as does extra-time. The tie therefore becomes the first instance of penalties being used to decide a European tie.

Joe Royle misses the first ever spot kick. They score. Bally walks up with his socks rolled down and slides it into the bottom corner. They miss then we score. Both teams score again before Sandy Brown finds the net then Andy Rankin makes a great save to send us through with the old stadium going berserk. It would the last time that any English team beat any German team be it at club or international level until Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to win the European Cup in 2012.

Sadly, it would prove to be the highlight of a dismal campaign as the Toffees are eliminated first by eventual finalists Panathaniakos in the European Cup on away goals and despite Alan Ball securing a 1-0 first-half lead are beaten 2-1 in the F.A. Cup semi-final by Shankly’s Liverpool meanwhile the Everton manager was in hospital with suspected heart problems. As Charles Dickens once wrote, “it was the best of times. It was the worst of times…” The side finished- more accurately limped into 15th place with Alan Ball- as were his colleagues a shadow of his former self. In April manager Harry Catterick was asked by a journalist how much it would take to buy Alan Ball? He replied, 1 million pounds. The transfer record at that time was £200,000 as we would shortly and regretfully come to know only too well. Alan Ball played 52 matches in total scoring 8 goals.

Catterick chooses not to invest but with injuries to long-standing team members Harvey, Morrissey and Wright all long-term absentees the side continues to struggle and is basically one-step-forward-two-steps-back. December 21st 1971 is a date that is burnt into the memories of Toffees of predominantly although by no means exclusively youngsters of the time. The news announced that Everton had agreed to sell Alan Ball to Arsenal for a British Record transfer fee of £220,000. It is the second time that the player has broken the transfer record having done so in joining Everton for £110,000 in August 1966…

The Dixie Dean Hotel and Alan Ball

Dixie Dean

A couple more things. Firstly, Alan Ball left Goodison Park in tears having made 251 appearances and scored 79 goals in total and would remain a fervent Evertonian for the rest of his life indeed bring up his children and grandchildren to be the same. Secondly, en route to Arsenal Bally was in a restaurant and was told by the waiter that there was a phone call for him. Having no idea whom might call him there he answered to find Bill Shankly on the line. He said to Alan that he had been a formidable and respected opponent. “A thorn has been pulled from my side, son.” That was very classy of Bill Shankly incidentally but for us it was, during the time of power cuts, the day the lights went out. They would stay out for the following 14 years. We were missing our guiding light. Our Ball of fire.

53 years today Alan Ball introduced himself to our neighbours with a double bang. It was mutual love at first sight that grew into a bonfire and one that remains as fierce today. It is genuinely a beautiful thing. The Dixie Dean Hotel and the Football Quarter eagerly await delivery of our statue of Alan Ball.

One final note, whilst at Everton Bally was coming back through Lime Street one night. A kid asks for an autograph, he agrees but notices the lad hasn’t any paper.

“It’s ok,” says the kid. “Spit on my hand. You’re Alan Ball.”

My hero. All our hero’s, lad.

Who’s the greatest of them all? Little curly Alan Ball.

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