Football: FA Cup Countdown: Ball rolling on the wheel of fortune: Mike Rowbottom meets the English former World Cup winner now guiding the fortunes of modest Exeter City

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be ironic if Guy Whittingham were to score for Aston Villa in the FA Cup this Saturday. Villa's opponents in a third-round away tie are Exeter City. The Second Division side are managed by Alan Ball - who first released Whittingham's talent to the wider footballing world by buying him out of the Army for pounds 450 when he was in charge of Portsmouth.

The wheel of fortune turns. While Whittingham has since risen to the Premiership, Ball has had a rockier journey in the lower reaches. Having taken Portsmouth into the old First Division, he was sacked four months after the arrival of a new club owner, with whom he did not get on.

Ball has not got on with a lot of people in his life - an inevitable corollary of a quick temper and an unwillingness to compromise principles. After Portsmouth came Stoke, where he resigned in the aftermath of relegation. So, three years ago, it all began again for him at St James Park in the West Country.

'Every manager in the country goes through peaks and troughs,' he said. 'It makes you a better manager, and a better person. My worst time was probably the day I decided to resign from Stoke. It was the lack of response I got from the supporters that was the worst thing. Everybody thinks they can be a manager of a football club and pick the team. Everybody thinks the job is easy. A manager can never be right.'

The peaks which Ball has experienced in his managerial career have more often than not been to see players he developed from a young age achieve their potential. By his own admission, he is a more natural coach than a manager; at Portsmouth, for instance, he brought on the talents of Darren Anderton (now with Spurs), Andy Awford and Kit Symons.

The pattern has been repeated at Exeter. 'I think I've got a good crop of kids coming through,' he said, adding, with a grim little smile: 'Again.' Such is the transience of his present calling that there is no certainty of reaping what is sown. 'The boys I brought through at Portsmouth I began working with when they were 12 years of age,' he said. 'It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see them now. But I didn't get the fruits of four or five years' hard work. In all fairness, people like Jim Smith (the present Portsmouth manager) have since recognised the job I did there. But that is the frustrating side of football for you.'

Not that that is the only frustration for a man who reached the very pinnacle of the game as a player, when he helped England win the World Cup in 1966. Excellence creates its own problems subsequently.

'The standards I set for myself as a player were of the highest, and as a manager I have had to realise that this doesn't apply to all the players of today. I've got to set different standards, which would not have been good enough for me.'

It was this factor, he feels, which explained why other boys of '66, such as Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton, stepped out of managerial careers. Of the England team who made history at Wembley, only he and Jack Charlton have ended up as managers. 'I think that says something for our passion for the game,' he said.

As for the man who seemed the most obvious managerial material of all, the late Bobby Moore, Ball explains his former captain's inability to make his mark in that career partly in terms of one of our least loveable national characteristics.

'The more successful you are, the more people want to chop the legs away from under you,' he said. 'It is typically English.' You sense that Moore is not the only World Cup winner who had reason to be aggrieved.

Although he has been obliged to lower his own expectancy of excellence over the years, the man with 72 international caps has not found it possible to witness the decline of our national standard with anything other than pain. 'I feel that the England manager should be involved with structuring football from the grass roots upwards,' he said. 'That has been the main stumbling block for people applying for the job now. Football in this country is still run by different factions.'

Since he was obliged to give up his coaching position with England after the last European Championship finals - Second Division clubs do not get the weekends off afforded to Premiership outfits in order to prepare for international matches - he has had to focus his gaze once again on the seedbed of the game.

'When I came to Exeter there was no youth policy,' he said. 'There has been a gap of two years, but now we have 17- and 18-year- olds starting to poke their noses through. It's more of a tomorrow club than a today club.'

He pauses, aware of the obvious hovering question that statement provokes. 'My contract ends at the end of next season,' he said. 'The biggest certainty is that I will leave the club in better shape than I found it.'

The prospect of his tomorrow club doing anything dramatic two days after tomorrow is not one he allows himself to wax lyrical over. 'We had to sell pounds 600,000-worth of players in the close season,' he said. 'Our entire team which will play on Saturday cost pounds 135,000. You see the gulf there is.'

It will not stop Ball wishing and hoping for success in the competition where he won losers' medals in 1968 and 1972, with Everton and Arsenal. For all the frustrations, he cannot contemplate being without the beautiful game. Alan Ball Snr, who spent long years as a manager in the lower regions, encouraged his son to stay in the game after he finished playing.

Ball Jnr still believes it was good advice. 'I love the day-to-day things about the game,' he said. 'Going to the training ground. Watching youngsters come through. It's a fantastic life. I'm a very lucky boy.'