We travel back in the time machine to the Seventies for this week’s Highbury Hero. One of the finest players of his generation. A world class midfield dynamo. It’s 1966 World Cup Hero Alan Ball.
Bally in his pomp at Highbury
Bally was perpetual motion, who was a master of one and two touch football. He loved to dominate possession of the ball and setting the tempo of the play. He had instant control and was a wonderful player to watch with his crisp incisive short passing game.
Although Alan was only five foot six inches he could battle and look after himself with the best of them. He had endless energy and was full of running. Peter Reid at the start of his career at Bolton was once given the task of marking Bally. Reid said he couldn’t get anywhere near him.
David O’Leary said “I remember thinking that he must have been some player to wear those white boots – and Alan Ball was some player. The best one-touch player I have ever seen. He was tops as a give-and-go man. He was also very bubbly. Got others around him to play”.
Bally was never one to hold back. He was very forthright and would always give his opinion. He occasionally got frustrated and berated his team mates in his high pitched voice, if they failed to come up to his own very high standards. But he was inspirational to to the younger players particularly Liam Brady who said this of Bally “In my opinion he was one of Arsenal’s greatest players of all time. 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.”
Alan Ball was born in Farnworth, Lancashire on the 12th May 1945. His father, also called Alan, had been a footballer, though never reaching the top level, Birmingham reserves was as good as it got for him, but he’d managed to do okay as a coach and manager. He channeled young Alan, from a very young age, into becoming a top player. Alan said his father was his mentor, coach, adviser, critic, psychologist, disciplinarian and as well as his caring father.
Alan with with his father Alan Senior
When Alan was 10 years old he came home from school and as always got his ball and started to kick it against a wall. Unfortunately he was wearing new sandals his mother had just bought. By the time Alan had finished a sole was hanging off. His mum had a right go at him and promised full retribution when his father got home. Young Alan was trembling with trepidation as he heard his father’s key in the lock and his mother showed his dad the damage Alan had done to his new footwear. Alan’s dad inspected the damage and suddenly reacted as if he had found gold dust. “It’s alright” he said “it’s his left foot”. For days he’d been on at Alan to practice with his left foot! It was almost an obsession with Alan Ball senior to make his son the player he never was.
Alan had several setbacks along the way. Lancashire Schools, Wolverhampton Wanders and Bolton Wanderers all rejected Bally, saying he was too small.
It was after being rejected by Lancashire Schools that Alan’s dad suggested he play for his side Ashton United in the Lancashire Combination as a schoolboy. Alan was only fourteen years old at the time. There were some gnarled old professionals playing in that league and Alan got a shock to the system when a big left back playing for Hyde United said to Bally. “If thee comes near me lad, I’ll snap thee in half”. But Alan took it it all in his stride and it toughened him up.
Following further rejections by Stan Cullis at Wolves and Bill Ridding at Bolton, who cruelly told Alan “The only apprenticeship you’ll get lad is as an apprentice jockey”, Bally finally got his chance at Blackpool. He was signed to the ground staff for a year and after that was given his first professional contract. One of his jobs at Blackpool was cleaning the great Stanley Matthews boots. Aged just Seventeen years old he was given his debut against newly promoted Liverpool at Anfield, on 18th August 1962 and Bally did well in a 2-1 win for Blackpool. Alan never looked back after that and stayed at Blackpool till the summer of 1966.
A very young Alan in his Blackpool days
After winning the World Cup Bally had become a much sought after player and he had the choice of joining Leeds United or Everton. He choose to sign for Harry Catterick at Everton for around £110,000. He enhanced his already considerable reputation as a great player. The Everton fans adored him and still do. He became part of that great Everton midfield known as “The Holy Trinity” which comprised of Bally, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey.
Bally poses for the camera in his Everton kit
Bally was part of the side that reached the FA Cup Final in 1968, only to lose 1-0 to a Jeff Astle goal and won the Title in 1968-69, lifting the trophy in captain Brian Labone’s absence.
Bally on the end of a nasty tackle from Billy Bremner his nemesis for many years at club and international level
It was at the Charity Shield in 1970 that Bally first wore his famous white boots. It was short notice and Hummel the boot makers didn’t have a pair ready that Alan felt comfortable in, so they painted his old Adidas boots white and glued the Hummel chevrons onto the boots. On the Monday after the game Hummel’s phone was ringing off the hook, they more than doubled their turnover taking orders for 12,000 pairs of white boots that morning!
Bally’s famous white boots
On 17th December 1971 Bally was summoned to Harry Catterick’s office. He looked at Alan coldly and said “We have had an incredible bid for you. It is a British record transfer of £220,000 from a top side. Their manager is in that room down the corridor. I suggest you go and speak to him”.
Bally asked why he was selling him. He was content at Everton and didn’t want to leave. Catterick replied “It’s business son. I am doubling my money. I’ve had you for five years. I am making a profit on you and I have had an awful lot out of you. Football’s business son”.
Catterick then said Alan should speak to his father and handed him the phone. Alan told his father that Everton had accepted a bid from Arsenal and what should he do. Alan’s father said there was no bigger club than the Gunners who’d just won the Double. Alan briefly met Bertie in that room down the corridor and agreed to meet with Arsenal, along with his dad in London the next day.
That night Alan senior rung Manchester United’s Frank O’Farrell as Alan was reluctant to move south. But O’Farrell said David Sadler had been doing well in midfield so there was little interest there in buying Bally. He then rung Malcolm Allison at Manchester City. He said he was interested and would ask the board to see what they could do.
The next day United had evidently changed their mind and had sent someone to Euston station to let the Ball’s know they were still interested. Arsenal got wind of this and as the train pulled into Watford Junction Ken Friar was on the platform to intercept Alan and his dad and whisk them away in his car to Highbury! Had they got to Euston they may well have got back on a train to Manchester and Bally could have signed for United.
While Bertie Mee and Ken Friar were talking about the deal in detail. Alan’s dad made an excuse to leave and phoned Malcolm Allison. He told him Arsenal had offered a basic wage of £250 a week. Allison said there was no way City could compete. How times have changed! So that was it Bally signed for The Arsenal for a record British transfer fee of £220,000.
Alan Ball signs for The Arsenal
Alan Ball signing for The Arsenal was massive, an iconic World Cup Winner was as big as it got. Bally made his debut for The Arsenal on the 27th December 1971 at Nottingham Forest in a 1-1 draw. When he made his home debut on New Years Day 1972, ironically against Everton, it was so exciting, a magical moment for the 47,031 fans seeing him coming onto the Highbury pitch with his distinctive red hair and white boots, to a tremendous roar from the terraces. Photographers were following him their flashbulbs going off ten to the dozen as they took their photos.
Bally surrounded by photographers on his home debut against his old club Everton
But there were problems both on and off the field at Highbury. The other players resented Bally being paid twice as much as even the highest earners. Charlie George told me he was on £90 when Arsenal did the Double. Players like Geordie Armstrong, John Radford, Peter Simpson and Peter Storey may have been paid a bit more due to the long service scheme that Arsenal operated, but none of them were anywhere the £250 that Bally was being paid.
There were also arguments over the style of play. At Everton Alan was used to the team playing everything through him and the other two members of that superb midfield Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey. Arsenal played a more direct style. Hitting long balls to John Radford and Ray Kennedy or playing it down the line to Geordie Armstrong to swing a cross into the box. Bally hated this, he wanted to play his one twos through the middle of the park and be the fulcrum of the side, but a lot of the time the midfield were being bypassed. I think Alan thought what’s the point of paying all that money for me if you aren’t going to play to my strengths. The normally bubbly Bally was very down at this point.
Captain Frank McLintock has a quiet word with Bally
But his strengths weren’t necessarily the teams strengths. Frank McLintock had a word with Bally saying “Look we’ve been playing this way for seven years and you can’t expect ten players to switch overnight to accommodate the eleventh man. You will have to be patient and adapt to us and we will try to adapt to you”. Bally took this on board and seemed happier after that.
A great photo of Bally in a classic yellow and blue kit
In his early years at Arsenal Bally came very close to winning silverware. We narrowly lost 1-0 to Leeds in the 1972 FA Cup Final, where Bally almost opened the scoring for us, but for Paul Reaney clearing his volley off the line. I thought we were on our way to the Title in 1972-73, when we beat Liverpool at Anfield 2-0 to go top of the table, Bally scoring from a penalty and a magnificent solo effort from John Radford. Unfortunately we finished second, just three points behind the Merseysiders.Arsenal go top of the table in 1973
In the later part of Bertie Mee’s reign he started to dismantle the Double side, George Graham, Frank McLintock, Charlie George, Bob McNab and Ray Kennedy were all moved on and Bob Wilson retired. The team were in dire straits, finishing 16th in 1974-75 and 17th in 1975-76, where Arsenal dangerously flirted with relegation. Alan missed the start of both those seasons and was sorely missed. In 1975-76 it could be said that without Bally’s huge contribution as captain, Arsenal may well have been relegated.
Bertie Mee stepped down and was replaced by Terry Neill for the 1976-77 season. Bally didn’t get on with Terry Neill from day one. But I remember we played some exciting football that season . We had signed Supermac and it was very highly entertaining watching Bally, Liam Brady and Geordie Armstrong setting up chances for Supermac and Frank Stapleton. But Arsenal signed Alan Hudson in December 1976 and ten days later just before Christmas Bally was on his way to Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton for £60,000. Bally’s last game for the club on the 4th December 1976 was a memorable one. The 5-3 win over Newcastle United, with Supermac scoring a hat-trick against his old club
Alan helped Southampton back to the First Division, when they were promoted in 1977-78 and he also played in the 1979 League Cup Final 3-2 defeat against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. He then had spells with Vancouver Whitecaps and Blackpool, as player manager, before returning to Southampton to play with the likes of Kevin Keegan and Mick Channon in 1981, he was also a fine mentor to Steve Williams. He then had a brief spell in Hong Kong in 1993 before finally ending his playing days at Bristol Rovers in the 1993-94 season.
Bally on international duty with England
Of course I have to mention Alan’s distinguished International career with England. He won 72 caps scoring eight goals and played for a decade from 1965 to 1975. He was the youngest player at just 21 in the World Cup Squad and although Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup Final. Bally covered every blade of grass at Wembley that day and many good judges rated him as the man of the match. He was also part of the England side in the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. He was given the England captaincy by Don Revie for six games and England were undefeated in those matches, including a 2-0 win over reigning World Champions West Germany and in his last game for England as captain and a player there was a 5-1 victory against the auld enemy Scotland in 1975 and I was lucky enough to be at Wembley that day to see it.
Bally and his teammates celebrate winning the World Cup in 1966
Bally went on to be an inspirational manager winning promotion to the top flight with Portsmouth. He also managed Stoke City, Exeter City, Southampton, Manchester City and ended with another spell in charge at Portsmouth. Alan Ball was also a brilliant after dinner speaker. Watch him in the superb video below tell some great stories about his football career.An inspirational after dinner speech from Bally which has the audience spellbound
Sadly Alan died aged 61, at his home in Warsash Hampshire, in the early hours on the 25th April 2007. Attempting to put out a bonfire which had spread to a fence in his garden. Alan suffered a fatal heart attack.
His funeral was held on the 3rd May 2007 at Winchester Cathedral and the list of mourners was a who’s who of football, among them Bobby and Jackie Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Roger Hunt, George Cohen, Gordon Banks, Dennis Law, Alex Ferguson, Mick Channon, Frank McLintock, George Graham, Bob Wilson, Stewart Houston, Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee, Peter Shilton, Gordon Strachen, Viv Anderson, George Burley, Steve McClaren, Trevor Brooking, Matt Le Tissier, Vince Hilaire and many more too numerous to name were there. Even Theo Walcott, who was coached by Bally when he was just twelve years old was in attendance.
Alan’s cap he wore as a manager is on top of his coffin
Alan Ball played 217 games for Arsenal scoring 52 goals. It’s amazing that Bally, a player of such immense talent didn’t win a single thing with Arsenal. He has to be the greatest Arsenal player never to win a trophy. But he’ll remain immortal as one of the boys of 66. God bless you Bally.A nice compilation of Bally’s Arsenal goals
As always thanks for reading. Another Highbury Hero will be coming along soon.