Football: Ball still believes in a blue heaven

Premiership: Goodison's coveted left-back is keen to extend Everton's recent mastery of the Merseyside derby
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The Independent Online
THIS AFTERNOON Michael Ball will be running out at Anfield in the blue of Everton. Nothing new there then, old Liverpool hands will note: he used to wear Everton blue when he was at the Reds' School of Excellence.

Cheeky? Well, he did not always wear blue; sometimes he would turn up in the green-and-white hoops of Celtic. One such day, he recalled this week, Graeme Souness, the then-Liverpool manager, had a quiet word with him.

"He said: `I've some advice for you, son. I'm Scottish, you've got an England trackie on. I'm Liverpool, you support Everton, and I was manager at Rangers and you've got a Celtic kit on. Work that one out.' I thought: `I'd best be on my way from here'."

It was under Souness that Ball did leave Liverpool, where he had been training alongside Michael Owen since they were both eight years old, to sign schoolboy forms for Everton. He is quick to point out, however, that he was neither thrown out by Souness nor ran away from him.

"I was 13 and also had trials with Manchester United, Everton and Oldham. Souness called me in and I was a bit nervous because he had a bit of a reputation but he was very good with me. He said: `Go with your heart. I don't want to force you to do anything because if you sign for us and your heart's not in it you probably won't fulfil yourself.'

"I sat back and thought what my dream was, and that was to play for Everton."

Thus Ball, unlike fellow Evertonians Owen, Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, kept the faith and was not lost to the "wrong" side of Stanley Park. There are those, seeing Everton embroiled in what has become an annual relegation battle, who will say he made the wrong decision. But no one could argue that the 19-year-old has not flourished in the Blues' blue period.

Given a debut during Dave Watson's caretaker-management in April 1997, he soon impressed with his cool head and assured technique. He became established last season, moving easily between left-back, left wing-back, centre-back and midfield and, except for two matches missed through suspension, has been ever-present this campaign, primarily at wing-back.

Five Under-21 caps have followed and he was in line for a senior call- up prior to a recent dip in form. This, he admits, was caused by fatigue.

After a tense finish to last season, during which Everton survived on the last day, he went to Cyprus with the national Under-18 team. Another demanding campaign has followed. "It's been a long season and it just caught up with me," Ball said. "I tried to fight it off by sleeping all the time but it was just too many matches.

"The boss [Walter Smith, who said he would have liked to rest Ball, but could not afford to] gave me a few days off, which was helpful, and I'm happy with my form now. I felt fresh with England [Under-21] last week and I'm feeling good for the derby."

He will need to. "They are amazing to play in, totally different football gets played. It is so quick. Even having foreign players doesn't seem to have made a difference. They soon get told, by friends and players, what it's about. They know what's at stake; when the new fixture list comes out it's the first match you look for."

For locals like Ball the match is the easy bit. The problem is getting enough tickets to supply family and friends. With Scot Gemmill and Kevin Campbell arriving at Goodison this week, Ball was quick to try and secure some extras but found they had already been spoken for.

Evertonian desire is accentuated by their good derby record: they have not lost to Liverpool, home or away, for more than five years.

"We've done well the last couple of seasons so I hope we can carry on," Ball added. "We need the points more than Liverpool do."

Last year Everton stayed up by virtue of a last-day point at home to Coventry. This year their final match is at The Dell. "We don't want another one like last year, oh no," Ball said. "Southampton would be tough. I played there with England last week and it doesn't look the best place to go as an away team. We just have to make sure we get the points in our home games. That's been our problem - scoring at home."

Or away. Everton have conceded fewer goals, 35, than fifth-placed West Ham but have scored a paltry 23 in 30 games, the worst record in the division. Ball, with two goals, is only a brace behind his side's leading strikers, Ibrahima Bakayoko and Danny Cadamarteri.

Ball, whose father played for Liverpool reserves, grew up admiring the contrasting influences of Paolo Maldini, of Milan - "for his passing with both feet" - and Pat Van Den Hauwe, of Everton - "for his tackling. My dad was a bit of a tackler, so he'd tell me to watch Pat."

Everton's impressive youth system and international matches have furthered his education. "The England games have been good experience - the football's very different. We played Russia's Under-18s, they looked big, strong lads and we thought, `This'll be a physical game.' But once you touched them, they were rolling all over the place. It's just cheating, but a clever way of cheating and they were getting away with it."

He added, poignantly in view of current events in the Balkans, "Then when we went to Yugoslavia the environment was a bit different, even then there were wars going on and we were all a bit nervous. We kept ourselves to ourselves."

Back home Ball has been linked with a series of clubs, notably Manchester United and Arsenal who, aware of Everton's financial crisis, sense an opportunity to secure a long-term replacement for Denis Irwin or Nigel Winterburn. Evertonians will be relieved to hear that Ball, while flattered, is in no hurry to leave.

"They are two of the biggest clubs in England and it is a bit of a confidence booster but I just want to play for Everton. The only way I'd leave at the moment is if they wanted to sell me because I don't want to go.

"I do have to think of my career. I want to start winning silverware, not be fighting relegation every year, but that's something to consider in a few years' time. I'd like to help Everton get back to how we were in the 1980s, being in Europe, winning the FA Cup, challenging for the league. It's partly a matter of confidence. We need to stay up, make some signings in the summer - if we can get the money together, and make a good start next year."

"If we get some money together..." Everton's players would certainly be helped by a resolution to the club's ownership problems. "When players are down on a Sunday morning all the papers have stories about directors and that, I'd rather read about which superstar we're signing next."

Amen to that, comes the Evertonian chorus, just so long as it is not financed by selling one of their own.

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