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Media Interview

This fascinating interview with Michael Ball is from the Sunday Times

Boy Blue
The 6.5M Rangers defender hopes to put knee injuries and bust-ups with managers behind him, he tells Douglas Alexander of the Sunday Times.

17 August 2003

The tapestry on the walls of Richard Steadmans office in Colorado is a rich one.  It is woven in years of gratitude, in autographed memorabilia from sportsmen and women whose careers have been saved by the Texan knee specialist.  Soon another item will take its place up beside those sent by Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alessandro del Piero, Lothar Matthaus and Alan Shearer, and the countless American footballers, skiers, baseball players and golfers that Steadman has also operated on.  It is the Rangers strip that Michael Ball wore in last weeks Premier league match against Kilmarnock.  Ball played for an hour.  His first involvement since December 1, 2001, when he played against Dundee at Dens Park.  Yesterday against Aberdeen he played his third competitive match in a week.  Three more than he had played in the previous 20 months.  It is all new to him again.  Even interviews.  On Thursday afternoon, despite the young family waiting for him at home, he spared two hours to talk, squinting into the sunshine after a team meeting at Murray Park to dissect the previous nights disappointing 1-1 draw with FC Copenhagen. 

In its closing moments, he took an elbow in the face keeping the Danes at bay, and the legacy is seen in a cross of stiches and blackened right eye.  But otherwise the most expensive defender in Scottish football history, according to a projected fee of Ј6.5m, is just fine thank you.  Polite, full of smiles, candid in his answers and generous with his time.  Rangers have finally got their Ball back but they, and football, came within a game of losing him.  Permanently. 

On the Thursday after the match at Dundee, Rangers played Paris Saint-Germain in the Uefa Cup and progressed to the fourth round on penalties.  It was the sort of big European game that Ball had dreamed of featuring in when he left Everton, his first love.  An accomplished penalty taker, he would surely have featured in the dramatic shootout that sent Rangers through to play Feyenoord.  But that kick, or any other in the match, could have ended his career. 

After playing against Dundee, the right knee which had been troubling him for most of 2001 was slightly stiff on the bus back to Glasgow.  Ball just put it down to a hard game on a heavy pitch, but the next morning his body gave him its equivalent of a four-minute warning as the joint ballooned.  A scan revealed that the patella tendon to his right knee had flaked away completely.  He was sent to Steadman immediately, in the nick of time as it transpired. 

The surgeon, with tens of thousands of knee operations behind him, shook his head in disbelief when he heard Balls story.  To Steadman, it sounded like a dispatch from a field hospital in the Crimean War as he discovered that Everton had administered injections directly into the damaged tendon to keep him going in their battle against relegation, and then again shortly before selling him to Rangers in August 2001.  His verdict was blunt.  One more game and your career was gone you were that close, he told the player. 

He saw the scans again and obviously wanted to know the history behind them, and couldnt believe what he was hearing, says Ball.  He said, You dont put injections into tendons.  You are lucky that your knee blew up.  If that had never happened, you would have known nothing about it.  You obviously have a high pain threshold.  I do have, but half of it was through the injections as well.  He found the crystals from them in my knee when they opened it up.

The first operation was to repair and regrow the damaged tendon.  The second, in the summer of 2002, was to widen the sheaf in which it is encased.  Ball was unlucky in that the second operation is only required in 30 per cent of cases and that set him back another season. 

His gratitude to Steadman is only surpassed by his gratitude to Rangers.  The best thing that happened was the move because if Id stayed I wouldnt know where my knee would be.  I have got a lot to thank Rangers for.  They spent a lot of money on me.  They gave me a good contract.  They havent spared any expense in getting me right and yet they have more money worries than Everton.  They sent me to Steadman, and the fees he charges are a lot, and I have been there twice now.  Its taken a bit longer than it was meant to, but Im back and nothing is going to stop me now.  If I had stayed at Everton I dont know where I would have been, thats why I have got to pay back Rangers now.

AS WELL as his disintegrating tendon, Ball was suffering from a broken heart when he passed Rangers lengthy medical in August 2001.  He had never imagined himself playing for any club other than Everton. 

His family are devoted Evertonians and he didnt miss a home game from the age of four until he went to Englands National School of Excellence at Lilleshall, aged 15.  When he finished playing for his boys club or his school, his dad, Michael, and mum, Carol, would be waiting with the car and a bucket of water, to scrub the mud off his legs and rush him to Goodison.  When his gran, Winnie, took him for his first pair of boots aged five he was so made up at getting them that he failed to notice that they had Kenny Dalglishs name on them.  As this horror dawned on him back in his bedroom complete with Everton curtains, Everton duvet and Everton moneybox he found a marker pen and blacked out the name of the Liverpool legend.  The marker pen was back out later in his career when he realised that his Predators, provided through an adidas sponsorship, had too much red on them for Merseyside derbies. 

Yet initially it seemed he would follow Dalglishs example with Celtic and end up becoming a player for the fierce rivals of the club he followed as boy.  At six, his father added a year to his age on a consent form, so that Ball could turn out for Formby Junior Sports Club.  A teammate was the son of Hughie McAuley, a Liverpool coach, and by the age of eight Ball was part of Liverpools School of Excellence, in the same year as Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.  He made a point of wearing his Everton strip to every training session, much to the amusement of his coaches.  To their frustration, he would work at emulating the things he had seen Kevin Sheedy, his left-footed idol, doing on a Saturday afternoon, rather than practice on his weaker right foot. 

By 15, Ball was one of the hottest properties in English football, bound for Lilleshall and courted by Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton and Oldham.  The coaching at Liverpool was great but as soon as I got the chance to join Everton, I jumped at it.  My mum wanted me to stay, because she knew the coaching was good and they had treated me well, but you have a team as a kid and you want to fulfil that dream.  I went for a few trials at Manchester United which was nice to do, but I always knew at the back of my mind that if Everton asked me back I would jump at the chance.  Howard Kendall came with Ray Hall and took us for dinner and offered us a contract.  He said that I could take it away and think about it, but there was no point.  I went to that meeting ready to sign.  Oldham, I think, offered me the biggest contract at the time.

Hall, still director of Evertons youth academy, remembers the meeting well.  We knew his family were big Evertonians and Howard wanted to be pro-active.  You could immediately see that Michael was something a bit different.  He had a terrific left foot, was a good athlete, a good size, good in the air and had the ability to play in a number of positions.  In a late bid to snatch him back, Liverpool sent Ian Rush along to explain that is was possible to be an Everton fan, as he was, and play for Liverpool, but Ball could only see blue and left for Lilleshall as an Everton signing. 

His year was a strong one, with Owen and Wes Brown of Manchester United in it.  I think its very disappointing that it has been shut down, he says of Englands national school of excellence.  "I was in a good age group and the year above us was also good, so we had competition.  The coaching from Keith Blunt was very clever.  I really rated it, but if you didnt do your school work you wouldnt train.  It was hard, tough, but I think Keith knew that he had a good year and could push us.

It was only when he went back to Everton as a YTS that Ball realised how privileged he had been.  The first couple of weeks seemed like a step back of two years.  Then Jimmy Gabriel spotted that and threw me in the reserves.  So I jumped from under-16s to the reserves in a matter of weeks.  Jimmy was a fan of mine as well so he helped me along in the reserves and soon I was training with the first-team.

By 17, he had made his debut against Tottenham during Dave Watsons spell as caretaker manager after Joe Royles departure, and before Howard Kendalls return.  Watsons advice was simple: make a good, hard tackle, show a good reaction and the fans will like you.  Ramon Vega was the recipient and Ball, who hadnt been booked all year, was shown a yellow card. 

Kendall returned, remembered fondly the Everton-daft boy he had taken out for dinner, and was prepared to sell Andy Hinchcliffe, then an England international, to pitch Ball into the clubs perennial relegation battles.

The traffic of players between Goodison Park and Ibrox over the years is plentiful.  Thomas Wylie headed south in 1890 to start the reciprocal relationship and Trevor Steven, Balls agent and another of his boyhood heroes, is just one of many stars that have played for both clubs.  Others include Torry Gillick, Stuart McCall, Paul Gascoigne, Richard Gough, Andy Gray and, a century ago, a certain David Murray, no relation.  Only one man has managed both clubs, but Walter Smiths arrival at Goodison in 1998 proved to be the catalyst for Balls departure three years later.  The parting was not an amicable one. 

The fallout started on the first day of this millennium when Ball and Richard Dunne failed to show for training, leaving their manager furious.  That was me being young and stupid, says Ball.  I was off about three or four days beforehand with the flu and I was used to the lie-ins, and then I went out with the family for New Year but slept in.  I was supposed to be picking Richard Dunne up, so it was my fault.  I know Walter was disappointed that we never phoned but we were so scared that he would think we had been drinking all night that we didnt do anything.  I should have just phoned, that was the easy thing to do.  Since then, me and Walter havent seen eye to eye.  I thought I would be there longer than Walter so I said to myself, Just get over it, get your head down and start playing.

The relationship deteriorated again when Archie Knox, Smiths assistant, took exception to Ball laughing at a joke told by the clubs masseur on the way back from a Worthington Cup defeat at Bristol Rovers.  He was talking about his schooldays, when he used to mess about with the teacher and the blackboard, and myself and Richard were laughing, Ball recalls.  I used to play cards down the back of the coach, but it was a bad result and I thought it was wrong to do that, so I sat in the middle which was closer to Archie.  He stood up and blamed me for it, because of the bad result, so I wasnt going to spit my dummy out and have a go back at him.  I got the blame for it, but then its in the newspapers the next morning.  That was part of the problem at Everton: you didnt know if it was your teammates, the manager or whoever, but we always knew there was somebody in the club leaking things out.

By the end, Smith and Ball were barely on speaking terms, and the player only learned through Steven that he could leave for either Rangers or Middlesbrough.  Walter didnt even mention it to me and obviously he knew it was coming because he had a good relationship with David Murray himself.  He didnt even pull me into the office to say goodbye or nothing.  I was disappointed by that.  I thought he would be man enough to come out and say it.

On the field, Ball did well in his final season for Everton.  His performances saw Peter Taylor call him into the England squad to face Italy, and he was capped by Sven-Gцran Eriksson as the Swedes reign began with a friendly win over Spain at Villa Park.  He would have perhaps won more had his injury not started to niggle.  There were rumours that Manchester United and Liverpool were again back on the trail of the one that got away. 

There was always talk about Man United, but Walter pulled me to the side and told me if Man United came in for me he would tell me.  It was a frustrating 18 months because every week it was in the papers that I was leaving.  Even your friends and family seem to think that you are not telling the truth, but at the time it was all paper talk. 

I got Player of the Year the last year I was there and when they gave it to me they said, You wont be leaving will you?  Because we gave it to Nick Barmby last year and he left, Don Hutchison the year before that and he left .  I did a bit of a speech and said, Ill see you next year, because I really thought in my heart that I would be staying.  But six weeks later I was up here.  I never thought I would be at Rangers, never thought I would be away from Everton. 

I was disappointed with Everton because they went with the cheapest option at the time to get me fit.  The injections rather than the operation, and I was naive perhaps.  When you think back, they were fighting relegation and then they sell me in the six weeks that my knee is good from the injection. 

They always knew I was a mad Everton fan, the chairman knew it.  Everyone in the club knew it.  Hell play for us anyway, hell sign no matter what, was the attitude.  The manager didnt like me.  At the end of the day, there wasn t any option but to leave.  I was taken advantage of.

As he looks on now at David Moyess almost paternal treatment of Wayne Rooney, another prodigious Evertonian produced by the academy, Ball at least has the consolation that the club he loves has mended its ways.  I am not envious, he stresses.  Its just the way it should be done.  It wasnt done when I was there.  The manager, the doctors and the physio should have been wondering why I couldnt train.  No-one ever pulled me to one side and said, Look, you have a serious problem here.  They just let me get on with it.  But what Moyesie has done with Wayne is great.

SMITHS reputation is strong in Scotland.  The core of his nine-in-a-row Rangers team eulogise his man-management skills.  Those who doubt Balls testimony can raise another high-profile instance of insubordination to support the view that the problem at Everton had more to do with his attitude than his managers.  It came memorably when he was substituted by Dick Advocaat in an Old Firm game at Celtic Park in November 2001 and the pair almost came to blows.  It is a scene that has come to represent the disintegration of the Dutchmans initial success into chaos. 

Yes, I was wrong. Ball says simply.  At the time I was disappointed coming off, I just wanted to be part of trying to get back into the game.  He wanted to make a tactical change, and as the kit man Jimmy Bell was standing with the jacket I just went, f**kin tosh, to him, but meaning it to be heard because I was disappointed to get taken off.  Dick reacted and pointed at me and said, You are never going to play for Rangers again, and I obviously said, F**k off.  It was just the heat of the moment.  It shows that we are both passionate.  We had a meeting, he said he was disappointed in my reaction and I said I was disappointed in his.  We had a little laugh about it and I had his trust again and he fined me, which I thought was fair enough.  That was the chairmans idea.  Dick was good because he got everyone in and told them, so nobody was in the dark.  I was disappointed the way it was presented in the press.  It went on too long and, because of my injury, people had nothing else to talk about.

Ball has had plenty of time to think about his mistakes.  At 23, he is already a father of two and that, he feels, has laid down another layer of maturity on his personality.  Michael, his son, is four on Monday and his baby girl, Alicia, is almost four months old. 

I have learned a lot for being so young, he said.  When I was a kid, I always used to think I would like to have a kid very young so that they could see me play and stuff, but before I met Amanda and had a family, my first concern was football.  I just thought about football all the time.  I didnt really bother about family, I just thought of it as something that was always going to be there.  Football was the most important thing for me, then I met Amanda and we had Michael, and that changes things.  We are lucky because our jobs arent nine to five.  You are back home by two oclock from training every day, and can spend time with our families.

Ball also wants to repay Alex McLeish, his current manager, for the patience and understanding he showed when he was recovering from injury, and lay to rest the idea that he is a problem player.  I want to be playing well to get you boys (the press) off the Advocaat thing or back at Everton.  I am probably the most laid-back player here but because of the situation with Dick thats the only way you boys know me.  You havent had much to judge me on, which is not your fault.  This season I have got a lot to prove to the fans, to the chairman who paid that money for me and to myself, that I can still do it.  I cant wait.  I feel like a little kid again.

"A little boy blue again."

2003 The Sunday Times


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