Football: Ball determined to bounce back

Football: As Sunderland prepare to face promotion rivals Ipswich, their captain puts bitter memories behind him
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NO ONE SEEMS able to remember exactly where it happened but, like all the best booze-ups, it was unplanned, unexpected and uninhibited. It has also gained legendary status as the night Sunderland's Premiership challenge rose from the ashes.

"It was near Peterborough," suggested Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager.

"It was near Northampton," offered Kevin Ball, the club captain. Either way, it was about an hour from Wembley and the First Division team were heading home after their defeat to Charlton in last May's epic promotion play-off final: 7-6 on penalties after a 4-4 draw.

"It was meant to be a quick drink then away," recalls Ball, "but we stayed. It wasn't really a celebration party but everybody had worked very hard during the season and it was important we had a few drinks, had a laugh, and commiserated with each other. A lot of people were very upset, players and families. My son stood there one minute and just started crying, he was that disappointed for his dad.

"It seems to have made us stronger. We said then it was important we bounced back, that we didn't have a hangover like we had after being relegated the previous year. And that's what's happened."

Sunderland may have had a hangover the morning after the wake but it had gone by the time the season started. Suffering just two defeats in 27 games they have gone nine points clear at the top of the First Division. Tomorrow they meet third-placed Ipswich Town followed by an FA Cup fourth- round tie at Blackburn next Saturday and the first leg of their Worthington Cup semi-final with Leicester City three days later.

"We've some big games coming up," said Ball when we met up at Sunderland's wind-swept training ground, the Charlie Hurley Centre. Ball is relieved to be able to play in them, he nearly missed out on the latter two having been sent off at Queen's Park Rangers last week but referee Scott Mathieson agreed on Thursday to downgrade the red card to a yellow. His absence would have been a considerable loss to Sunderland. While not the most eye-catching of players he is, said Reid, "an inspirational leader".

It is a view supported by Lee Clark, his midfield partner, who said: "He's very important to us. He's well respected, he leads by example through his determination and attitude. If anyone needs a bollocking he gives it out as well. He's a hands-on captain," added Clark. "He wants to do everything for the club and if something needs doing for the players he's the one who sorts it out."

This is the impression Ball gave on the television series Premier Passions, which charted Sunderland's doomed 1996/97 Premiership season - and which he thought "brilliant". It is also the impression he gives in the flesh.

Sitting in what appeared to be an old cricket pavilion he spoke passionately about his family, his good fortune at making a career out of football, his empathy with his adopted North-east - "colder than the South but a great place to live" - and its fans whose reaction after Wembley was, he said "superb". As with Peter Reid, what you see is what you get.

Well, almost. What you see is an intimidating man, looking taller than his 5ft 9in despite, or rather because of, his close-cropped hair, lean features and diamond stud earring. Later, when a Sunderland official showed me round the stunning Stadium of Light, he gestured to the physio's couch in the away dressing room - which is notably drearier than the home one - and said: "We leave a picture of Kevin Ball on that, so they know what to expect."

Away from the midfield battle Ball is, however, a quiet and thoughtful speaker, his Sussex accent still strong despite a decade on Wearside. Only one subject is off-limits, the Premiership.

"I'm a big believer in only speaking about things when they happen," he said. "It's been a good start but there is still a lot of hard work to do."

Locally there is still scepticism among supporters. They have made the club the fifth-best supported in the country with average gates of 37,349 but the scars of last season, when Middlesbrough pipped Sunderland to the last automatic promotion spot with just four days to go, run deep. But, while the team's recent performances have been unimpressive they have kept gathering the points and, notes Ball, done so in the absence of key players such as Kevin Phillips, Allan Johnston, Clark and Michael Gray.

Only suspension has kept Ball on the sidelines as, despite his 34 years, he continues to anchor the midfield. He moved there four years ago having spent most of his career in defence. Players normally go the other way as they age but Ball said: "I may be 34 but I look after myself. I don't drink a great deal - I like to get drunk occasionally but I pick and choose when - I try and eat the right stuff, I rest when I can. Everybody calls you a veteran at a certain age but I'd rather be called experienced.

"It gave me a new lease of life moving into midfield. People look at a midfield player and expect him to be a Glenn Hoddle but you need balance. I weigh in with a few goals and passes when I can but the main thing I do is close people down, tackling, stuff like that.

"Every team needs someone who will put their foot in, get stuck in, get kicked from pillar to post. I got kicked in the nuts at Tranmere recently and they were black and blue for days, but at the time I just thought `ooh that hurt', the ball was three yards away and there was another tackle to be made so I went in for that."

Ball began as an apprentice at Coventry but failed to settle - "I missed the sea and my girlfriend". He has never been away from either since, marrying Sharon and joining first Portsmouth then, after seven seasons, Sunderland.

During his time at Pompey - "I hope to God they get out of the trouble they are in" - he played with Steve Claridge. Claridge, now back at Portsmouth, described in his autobiography how Ball - "a frightening bugger" - would invite fellow apprentices to play a game of "murder ball" in the boot room which consisted of him "wellying the ball at you as hard as he could".

Fifteen years on Ball remembers with a chuckle and responds with a tale about Claridge: "He used to put these spikes on and say he was going to do extra running. The coaching staff would say `oh brilliant'. Yet when we went out there he was nowhere to be seen. Then, high in the stand, we would see these two pairs of spikes up on a seat and the Sporting Life being read between them."

Like most players he knows he will miss the camaraderie when he retires and he intends to play as long as he can stay in the game. That is when he is not following the burgeoning career of his son, Luke. He talks of the 11-year-old (there is also a daughter, Natasha), who trains with Sunderland's school of excellence, with pride but adds: "He's better than me technically but whether he has the same passion for the game I don't know. When I was a lad football was the be-all and end-all but there are that many other avenues for kids now.

"I will look back on having achieved the boy's own dream of playing football. I've been fortunate to play here when I have, at a tremendous football ground in Roker Park and now a football stadium that's out of this world.

"I've played in an FA Cup final, a Wembley play-off final and won two promotions including a First Division title. It's not a lot, but a lot of footballers never get anything. I'm happy with that but I'm greedy for just a little bit more."