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No bawling over Michael

by Lyndon Lloyd

Michael Ball As difficult as it may be to believe, Everton are on the verge of selling their Player of the Season for the sixth season in succession, perhaps the saddest indictment of the instability that has plagued the club for the past decade.

Michael Ball is poised to become a Rangers player in a £7m transfer north of the Border, and despite the threats and warnings of a supporters' revolt, he is leaving Goodison Park without so much as a whimper of protest from the fans.

Rather than apathy, the lack of upset among the fanbase suggests more a feeling of resignation following the departures of Nick Barmby and Francis Jeffers over the past 14 months; the supporters have become accustomed to the best players leaving, either because they want to or the club needs them to for financial reasons.

The sale of Michael Ball, the last bastion of a relatively successful era for Everton's youth setup, which spawned the likes of Jeffers and Gavin McCann, was supposed to be the straw that broke the camel's back for Everton fans. The backlash against Bill Kenwright and Walter Smith was expected to be vitriolic because of Ball's near-legendary love for Everton.

As a youngster on Liverpool's books he trained with the Reds in his Everton jersey and he now has an Everton crest painted on the side of his Merseyside home. At this year's Hall of Fame gala, he assured concerned fans that he was going nowhere and that he'd see them all next year as an Everton player.

Ever since he broke onto the scene as a precocious talent during Dave Watson's short spell as Caretaker Manager at the end of the 1996-97 season, Ball has been linked with a big-money move to Manchester United, Arsenal or Leeds. All the while, the Liverpool-born defender insisted he didn't want to go anywhere, even if it meant to win trophies at Old Trafford.

But, there has not, at least not yet, been much reaction at all from the fans beyond resignation to the fact that Everton are, for the time being, a selling club feeding the biggest teams in Britain.

It is easy, though, to be angry about this latest sell-off of the family silver, especially given Ball's supposed status as a loyal Blue and the high hopes the fans had of him becoming the new Watson, Ratcliffe or Labone. Perhaps, though, the supporter reaction has been so muted because we don't know the real reasons why Michael is leaving.

The club have been criticised for handing Kevin Campbell a new contract believed to be worth £30,000 a week and not offering Ball parity with him and the likes of Duncan Ferguson. Indeed, if the July Poll here at ToffeeWeb is anything to be believed, two-thirds of Evertonians thought Everton should have offered him the same money as the club's top earners. And the new contract recently awarded to Thomas Gravesen - whose first season at Goodison was middling at best - seems only to have rubbed salt in the wounds, even if he appears to now be earning less than Ball is rumoured to have been offered.

There is, however, some common sense going on here, and a reaction against the forces of "player power" that is becoming so prevalent in today's game. Looking at the Ball saga objectively, the club has acted sensibly in not caving to the frankly (assuming he did ask for parity with the Goodison's top earners) ludicrous demands of a 21 year-old player with barely a season of form worthy of the terms he was seeking.

In the larger scheme of things, Michael Ball is still a relatively unproven commodity. He showed the country his obvious talent when broke onto the scene in 1997, but then had three erratic seasons, culminating in his personal nadir a year ago when he might well have joined Leicester City, had Peter Taylor met Everton's evaluation.

In the early part of the 2000/01 season, his career looked to have headed into a cul-de-sac. He was a fringe player in a struggling team who had seen his manager buy yet more competition for his position with the signature of Alessandro Pistone and Gary Naysmith.

And there certainly was more to the situation than his obvious problems with Walter Smith (more on that later). Ball was clearly struggling for form, possibly because of a complacent mentality and the trappings of sudden fame. To be blunt, by 2000 he did not look like a multi-million pound star of the future.

Then, in November 2000, fate played its hand. Facing an injury crisis of unprecedented proportions and barely able to pick eleven players for a starting line-up for a home game with Arsenal, Walter Smith selected Michael Ball to play as an emergency centre back. The result was a stellar performance deputising for Richard Gough and Ball finished the season playing in that position to rave reviews.

He was voted Everton's Player of the Season and his evaluation spiralled upwards with his popularity.

However, less tangible to the outside world, including the Everton fans, was Ball's relationship with Walter Smith, whose dealings with the club's young players have cast an enigmatic cloud over his tenure so far at Goodison Park.

The problems started on New Year's Day 2000 when Ball and his teammate Richard Dunne failed to show up for training following a heavy night out celebrating the Millennium the night before. Smith was livid, both were fined heavily and dropped from the squad for a fortnight.

The same pair were involved in the controversy following defeat at Bristol Rovers in the Worthington Cup when Smith apparently reprimanded both Ball and Dunne and dropped them from the following match for laughing and joking on the team bus on the way back to Merseyside.

It seemed for a long while that Smith had a serious problem with both players, further emphasised by Dunne's £3m sale to Manchester City in the early part of the 2000/01 season. Dunne's departure seemed to bring about an instant change in Ball, as was evident in his renaissance during the Arsenal victory that relaunched his career. But the rift between manager and player appears never to have healed and could be the single biggest factor in Ball's decision to leave.

Everton certainly should not be criticised for not offering Ball enough to stay. The contract they did put in front of him would have instantly doubled his wages to an estimated £20,000 a week; not bad for a 21 year-old with a hitherto erratic career behind him. Facing the kind of financial constraints that have plagued the club for years, could and should Everton really have offered to treble his wages?

Frankly, no. It would have been ridiculous to pay a young upstart the same as a seasoned campaigner like Kevin Campbell who has at least displayed consistency in a Blue shirt despite his injury problems. If Michael Ball was the True-Blue Evertonian he claims to be, he would have accepted the significant increase in his salary and not held the club to ransom as he appeared to be doing. The fact remains that he was offered a deal that was more than generous for a player at this stage of his career. If he rejected it for monetary reasons we can dismiss him as a mercenary who is better off away from Goodison, particularly during these trying financial times.

There is, however, a nagging feeling that Ball isn't the sort of person who would bleed his boyhood club dry, as evidenced by his decision not to persue a £750,000 loyalty bonus he believes Everton owe him because he did not explicitly ask for a transfer. [How badly has he been advised by former Everton hero turned snake-in-the-grass, Trevor Steven who has apprently negotiated on Michael's behalf?]

Which offers up two alternative scenarios:

1) It brings us back to the role of Walter Smith and his relationship with Ball. There was plainly little common ground between the two; whether that was because of Smith's inability to effectively foster the club's youth players or because of something Ball did to seriously compromise his manager's respect for him we'll never know. If, however, he rejected the contract because, like Francis Jeffers, he simply didn't want to stay at Everton, questions may be asked of Smith's management in the search for the reasons why a boyhood Evertonian has turned his back on the club he supposedly loves so much.

2) The club simply played hard-nosed economics. Looking at the crippling debt that has weighed the club down since the Johnson regime and the need to strengthen the team, the Everton board saw an oppportunity to make a quick killing on a home-grown talent who plays in a position for which there is now plenty of cover. Yes, the fans would be angry, but they'd get over it.

Whatever the reason for Ball's departure, Evertonians will soon find out if they have seen the back of a prodigious young talent or a flash in the pan. Much might depend on where Rangers play him, for his best performances in the Blue of Everton were definitely in the centre of defence while he seemed to struggle at left back.

If he does blossom into an international-class defender, Everton might not ever be able to buy him back should they ever want to. But given the financial difficulties the club are working under now, the legacy of his sale might eventually be one of positive economics and not the principle of letting go one of our "own".


©2001 ToffeeWeb, 3 August 2001

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