A product of the FA’s National School of Excellence in Lilleshall, Michael Ball made his Everton debut at just 17 years of age and went on to make over 120 appearances for his boyhood club.
After the departure of long term left-back Andy Hinchliffe to Sheffield Wednesday in January 2008, a series of confident and assured performances proved that despite his young age, Ball was ready to make the left-back slot his own.
He was deployed as both a left-back and a left midfielder during his time at the Blues, but it was actually in the centre of defence were Ball had his best spell in an Everton shirt, under the stewardship of Walter Smith.
After five seasons at the club, a move to Rangers followed, where he ended up winning the League and League Cup double at Ibrox. With the Gers’ financial troubles well documented, Ball then had a short stint at in Holland, winning the League title with PSV Eindhoven, before returning to England and finishing his career at Manchester City.
Ball is somebody who has the pretty unique experience of playing both for and against his boyhood club. It has often been said that you stop being a true fan when you become a professional player, I asked Michael if this was a perception he went along with and asked him how the feelings compared, playing both for and against the Blues…
Obviously making my debut and then every time putting on the royal blue shirt was an absolute dream come true and a feeling I wished would last forever. In fact, when Rangers came in for me, that was a big part in my decision, that I would not have to play against the Blues. Inevitably, when I signed for City I knew it had to happen and I had to be professional and respectful in my capacity as a Man City player. It was hard because I was still going to Everton games long after I had left the club, in fact, I actually came close to re-joining Everton on a couple of occasions. My agent had talks but it fell through, with David Moyes opting to bring back Alessandro Pistone and for other reasons later on. So when I did play against Everton, I wanted to play well and prove that they were wrong and they should have brought me back. Games at the Etihad were not as hard obviously, but playing at Goodison against your boyhood club was such a strange feeling. I tried my best to win the game and played well, but my head just didn’t seem right, it was a weird feeling.
It was Dave Watson, in his role as Caretaker Manager, who gave Ball his debut as a late substitute to replace Terry Phelan against Spurs in April 1997. It was Joe Royle however, who Ball credits for developing him as a player and bringing him into the First Team fold long before his debut. In his next appearance, again as a sub, he became the youngest player to appear in a Merseyside Derby, coming on for Craig Short in a 1-1 draw.
Ball then went on to play under Howard Kendall and Smith at Goodison, followed by a host of big-name managers in his time at other clubs. Never afraid to give an honest opinion, Ball pulls no punches when he gave me a fantastic, straight to the point summary of the managers he played under throughout his career…
Howard was great to play for, under some difficult circumstances. I doubt any manager could have done what he does under that kind of pressure. I was gutted when he left.
Under Walter, I felt like my game going forward halted, but I also had my best season at Everton playing centre-back under him.
Very hands-on and demanding, like a little general. It was the first time I had seen a manager want to do everything.
Also did well under some strange circumstances, the club was under a big transition and he had inherited some big names and big personalities, but he was a success.
He was the master of knowing what to do at the right time. He liked to keep things simple, again he was very hands-on and demanding. Long training sessions.
No time for him. Very disrespectful. I was gutted when he came to Everton.
He was in his first manager’s role and to be honest, you could tell, but he was a really top bloke. I was grateful he brought me back to England.
He was fantastic, but probably lacked the old-school English half-time team talk. Again, he was very hands-on. His focus was on defending so it obviously suited me.
Training was hard, the total opposite to when he played. I didn’t learn much through his coaching, everything was fitness based. I was disappointed in how he treated me in my final year at City
There is the age-old question, which is the biggest derby in football? Both the Merseyside and Old Firm Derbies are watched by millions around the world, Michael Ball experienced both. So how did they compare as a player?
These games are the ones you always dream about playing in. As a fan, I’m always nervous on the morning of the game, thinking about it every moment up until kick off. As a player, it was the same, but I could do something about it as a player. I absolutely loved playing in them, but it was sickening when you are on the wrong side of one, even more so being a boyhood Evertonian. Referees cost us a few times which makes it even harder to take!
“The Old Firm build up is much more intense, for obvious reasons, but also when both clubs are chasing for the title. It can be a two week build up, with five or six pages in every national newspaper each day. Obviously, I loved a good tackle and there was no better way to get stuck in than in these high pressure games, I loved them.”
As our conversation moved to the current Everton side, I was intrigued to ask him his thoughts on former teammate Duncan Ferguson, knowing him as he does, was he surprised to see Big Dunc step up to take charge as Caretaker Manager this season?
The big man was great with me when I was coming through as a young player. I always said to myself I would do the same when I become a pro. Dunc was a great player, both in training and on the pitch, when he was 100% fit he was unstoppable. As we know, he was somewhat camera shy as a player, So I must say I thought he would take a backseat in his coaching roles, but I think Dunc has got the buzz back. He has seen what has gone before him and learnt from those managers, I think in the end he was chomping at the bit to take over. And he did do, big Dunc style!
I asked Bally if he thinks Dunc has what it takes to be a future Everton manager, in a permanent capacity?
Only he will know when he feels ready to take over full time, but he knows what makes Everton tick. Howard Kendall actually told me this many years ago, he said Dunc should take over from David Moyes and then again when Roberto Martinez left. Who would argue with Howard’s recommendations?
As we talked about modern-day football, the conversation swung towards money. It was well publicised at the time that Michael was caught up in the middle of a financial dispute between Rangers and Everton. As he approached the 60 game mark, Everton would be due additional payments from Rangers, as per the agreement made upon his transfer. Rangers were in turbulent times, money issues were well publicised and Ball found himself in the position of being left out of the Rangers side as the club point blank refused to make the payments that would be owed. After a torrid time with injuries, Ball took matters into his own hands…
I have had difficult times before, not playing when being out injured, but actually training every day and not being able to play was much worse. So myself, and the Rangers chairman came up with the idea that I would pay Everton £4,000 for every game I played. I just wanted to play so money wasn’t a problem, but it was also my way of paying the club back for all of the money they had spent on me, in transfer fees and more importantly on my knee operations. I would never have played again if the club had not sent me to the best in the world, which obviously, comes at a cost! Luckily the idea was a success, I came back into the squad and played a part in helping us catch Celtic up and we won the League & League Cup double. My performances also caught the eye of clubs in the UK and PSV Eindhoven, which meant my career could carry on.
As we talked about financed, I was conscious that sceptics will point to the notion that £4,000 is not a life-changing amount of money for a professional footballer, but the fact remains that he did it. You have to ask yourself how many players would be happy to be sat in the stands picking up a full wage without kicking a ball. I can’t help but draw comparisons to another former Blue, Jack Rodwell…
Without wanting to personally vilify Jack in any way, it was well documented on the Netflix series ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ how he refused to end his contract, despite the club publicly being in financial turmoil and making no secret of their desperation for Jack to move on and help save the club. A juxtaposition of professional attitudes…
I was disappointed in Jack, obviously we don’t know the full facts of what went on, but also in our own Luke Garbutt, if the rumours were true that his wages would double if he made another appearance. Yes, clubs should honour the contracts offered to players, but I do feel at times as a player you have to look at yourself and ask – is there a way I can fix the issue and get back to playing football and look at the bigger picture?
Michael’s mention of PSV brought me onto my next question. After a short spell in Holland, albeit winning the league during his time at PSV, was playing abroad something he was glad he sampled? Now working on the other side of football, running his own sports agency and looking after young players, was it something it he would recommend to them?
Definitely! I learned such a HUGE amount in a relatively short space of time. Yes, the Premier League gets all the glory and the money, but it reminds you that other leagues exist, some of them producing teams that are consistently reaching European Semi-Finals and Finals, with a lot less money available to them. Playing with players from all over the globe, speaking different languages, but all-knowing how to play together as one and ultimately lifting trophies. It shows you that Football is one language and different styles of coaching can bring out the best in your own ability and help you become successful. You see there is a bit of a trend now in young UK based players going abroad, that will bring them on leaps and bounds, both as a player and as a person. Jonjoe Kenny, he will come back a much more rounded player if he returns to Everton next season.
As mentioned, Michael now finds himself on the other side of the game, running his own sporting agency. Using all of his experience from a successful career as a player, coupled with what he knows about the game off the field, he hopes one day to have the next Everton superstar on his books.
If any young players or parents need any advice or guidance, whether they are currently playing or on the verge in the game, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!