France '98: Shadow Of Gazza

A hero of 1966 warns the class of 98 may be short of the highest quality. Alan Ball talks to Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online
THROUGHOUT those 19 days of high summer 32 years ago he was always running. The pictures might be grainy monochrome but the young tiro was so feisty, fiery and dogged you just knew he was carrot-topped. Alan Ball was the youngest of the Boys of '66, not long turned 21. As the manager of Portsmouth he is the only one still directly involved with the professional game. "Our squad had five players who were truly world-class," he said. "It might have been very close but that always gave us a chance and we knew it. That's why we had the advantage over the present side. They might have three players who come into that category, just, and no more. The strength in depth is a bit of a worry. I can't see England winning the World Cup this time. They'll be doing very well if they reach the semi-finals."

Ball weighed his words carefully, anxious to avoid unkindness but also to deflate what he sees as the unrealistic hope and unnecessary hype which have been invested in the squad of 1998. At the age of 53, he remains carrot-topped, the thatch steadfastly refusing to turn grey despite years of worrisome management which must have taken their toll. His opinion on England World Cup teams will always be in demand. He has been there and done it. He named the top quintet from 1966 as Gordon Banks, Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves. "They were all quite simply among the very best practitioners in their position anywhere," he said. "They would have walked into most teams at that time and we knew it. It did wonders for the rest of us. And Jimmy, of course, didn't play after the group matches. Glenn Hoddle doesn't have that quality at his disposal. The three I would pick as standing out from the rest are David Seaman, if he's back to peak form, Alan Shearer, or at least the Alan Shearer of a year ago, and Paul Gascoigne if he was properly fit. But there are doubts about all of them being at their peak right now."

Ball spoke a few days before England's squad of 22 was named, not knowing how percipient he had been in the case of Gascoigne. "He came down to Fratton Park a few weeks ago to take part in Paul Walsh's testimonial match. It was typically good of him and he's a really likeable outgoing lad, good to be around. But in the bar afterwards it was obvious he was having too much to drink. I had to have a word with him. I told him he was representing my country in a month's time in the most important tournament of his life and should get his act together. I don't know if he listened because he's been in the papers with his mates showing them out at all hours."

Ball did not anticipate that Hoddle would be bold enough to omit Gascoigne and in the light of subsequent events his shrewd observation assumes a still sadder dimension. "Maybe he can get fit in time, maybe not, but time has been running out," said Ball. "It's the sort of thing that'll hit him in about two years and he'll regret it all his life. He knows that Hoddle's got to pick him because there's nobody else as good but he's being a silly lad." Ball, then, was as surprised as anyone when the announcement came but far from critical of the England coach. "It's a brave decision. Gazza will rue the way he's prepared."

Despite Gascoigne's gifts it was impossible to imagine him playing with the same insistent momentum which characterised Ball's game. Back in July 1966, he was one of those directly responsible for Sir Alf Ramsey's side becoming the wingless wonders. Instead of being on a flank, he adopted a position further inside from where he ran and ran, and then ran some more. In the final, he repeatedly dragged the German full-back, Karl- Heinz Schnellinger, inside, retaining his energy as Schnellinger tired. Ball's pass from the right led to Geoff Hurst's disputed second goal, but he was less concerned about his own virtues being duplicated in the side of '98 - though his contribution on 30 July 1966 should not be underestimated - than about the sort Gascoigne might have provided. "It's about unlocking defences in a moment. That's what it takes these days, something magical that none of the opposition is expecting," said Ball. And he added with yet more incisiveness: "That's what Gascoigne can do with his perfectly weighted passes but there's a big, big 'but' over him. There's got to be. It's why I was surprised Matthew Le Tissier was left out. Nobody else in England can do what he can with a football. He's brilliant and I don't think he's the type of player we can leave at home. There are other good professionals in the squad, holding players. I like what Paul Ince and David Batty can provide but they aren't going to do what Le Tiss could. I managed him at Southampton, he was never a problem and some of his tricks take the breath away."

There's Darren Anderton, though. He was a boy at Portsmouth the first time Ball was manager at Fratton Park in the Eighties. Plagued by well- documented injuries which have helped to give him the nickname "Sicknote'", he appears to have returned to fitness and potentially defence-unlocking form in the nick of time. Ball is careful not to expect too much but it might be that another season which hardly started has left him fresh and hungry. "Good player, dashing winger." He may just provide the cutting edge that Ramsey's team did not need down the flanks. "It's not going to be easy. England will be organised. Their strategy will be right but they could be short. I hope not, I hope the Boys of '66 are joined by them. But Yugoslavia and Croatia look as though they've got vibrant teams. If France have got 22 players better than David Ginola they've got to be watched. But the real value-for-money bet and the team I fancy is Argentina."


Ball on the world-class players of 1966...

Gordon Banks: 'He was phenomenally good. We knew he was the best in the world and he played like it.'

Bobby Moore: 'Perfect player, perfect captain, smooth and controlled. Fantastic, just fantastic.'

Ray Wilson: 'Unsung in world terms but what a linchpin at the back. He didn't put a foot wrong, didn't miss tackles. He was so aware, so cool.'

Bobby Charlton: 'Well, he was a legend and still is. Helped to make us tick.'

Jimmy Greaves: 'OK, he didn't play in the final but he did in the group games without scoring. The rest of us knew how good he was as a forward and that was great. Jimmy didn't play beyond the group matches after getting injured. Gazza won't play at all. He could have done so much but he hasn't looked after himself.'

Ball on the world-class players of 1998...

David Seaman: 'He's been injured a bit this season. I still think he's right up there, and England better had too.'

Alan Shearer: 'There's no doubting his goalscoring capabilities. But he's got to get the ball and after his injury we might, just, be talking about the Shearer of a year ago.'