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Feature: When Fleetwood Let Their Cantona Go

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By Jeff Weston

Great departures – departures of infinite magnitude – wound a man. They hurt a community. They penetrate the gut and twist it so fiercely that fans must lie down, prostrate, paralysed or fatigued by the news they have just heard.

Thursday, 26th November 1992 prompted such reactionary symptoms when brief terrace hero, Eric Cantona left Leeds United for Manchester United. That such a situation could come about was insane, incredulous, idiotic, surely the work of a mad man. Bill Fotherby and Howard Wilkinson – chairman and manager at the time and immediately up on WANTED posters around the city – had not only sold the club’s best crockery, but delivered it lovingly wrapped to the enemy across the Pennines for a pittance (£1.2m).

Ball during his time at Fleetwood Town

Ball during his time at Fleetwood Town

At 3.29pm on Wednesday, 6th May 2015 as the UK was readying itself for a new government, a similar thing occurred: Fleetwood Town announced that fourteen players had been released. On that list were big names (Mark Roberts, Stephen Crainey, Steven Schumacher & Jeff Hughes) but the name sandwiched between them was Ball…David Ball; surely a mistake; surely a clerical oversight.

Not so. Fleetwood actually wished to ditch the name sung the most from the stands. Spiffing daleks may have taken over the country on the Friday, but football is supposed to be more humane than politics. People need guarantees. They need reassurances. Thou shall not mess with cult heroes.

“We have had to make some very difficult decisions…We have a profile of the makeup of our future squad going forward and a stronger emphasis on up and coming professionals.” For a moment you see the pensive, slightly troubled face of Howard Wilkinson, but you then realise that the words belong to Graham Alexander and will be echoed by chairman, Andy Pilley.

These are good men, men of sound judgment, men who have participated in the Cod Army revolution over the last decade. You wonder for a second though – nay, longer – whether a number of ales were consumed when this particular decision was made. Ball is as far away from Cantona in many respects (if only in kung-fu kicks) as Morecambe was with Wise, or Smith was with Jones. But the crucial parallels are: flair, unpredictability, magic from out of nothing, unique running style, goals from all over the pitch and a hatful of assists.

Cantona was loaned out to Martigues, Bordeaux and Montpellier; Ball to the less glamorous Swindon Town and Rochdale. Both men craved a home though – a real home; a club that would treasure them, treat them like family, understand their foibles and inner workings. Cantona eventually found it under Alex Ferguson between the years 1992-1997. Ball, at a similar juncture (nearly 26 years of age), is about to find his.

“I started out at Prestwich Marauders FC,” Ball tells me, kindly allowing me 75 minutes of his time on a Sunday morning. The club, formed in 1972, represented his pre-Man City youth, his initial taste of football. A Whitefield lad, Ball at the age of seven signed for City. “When I was younger I was a United fan. My father was United. I had the chance to go to United or City at the time. I chose City…thought it was the longer route.”

By ‘longer route’ Ball seems to indicate that City offered longevity. Ten years with the kids and then an official youth career (2007-09) and senior career (2009-11) proved him right. “I won everything you could win as a youngster. The Nike World Cup, the 2008 FA Youth Cup.” Stints in the Premier Reserve League (joint second top scorer 2009/10) further enhanced his reputation but by then City’s new owner Sheikh Mansour was two years into his tenure and starting to inject obscene amounts of money into the club. In January the following year, Ball was gone – sold to Darren Ferguson’s Peterborough United for a modest £50,000.

The senior debut at Man City never materialised although he did work under three different nationals – Sven Goran Eriksson, Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini. Hughes or ‘Sparky’ is the one he remembers with great veracity. “I think he understood how tough it was to break through. He’d seen something in me. Took me out to do shooting sessions.”

With Sparky’s departure in December 2009 came six months of thinking, a loan spell to Swindon and the eventual transfer to Peterborough. Is football a smooth career? “No. You just try to work with it, go with the flow…something comes up, you deal with it.”

Ball is an honest chap. He looks you in the eye. There is none of the ostentatious bluster with him. And he is certainly not the unseemly caricature of a footballer often beamed into homes which reinforces the old quote: “Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen.” You ask him for his time in a respectful way and he gives it to you. You tell him the angle of the story and he looks genuinely overwhelmed.

Compare this – perhaps unfairly – with Kenny Dalglish (as a manager) in 1988: “There are quite a few men attached to microphones and notebooks up and down the country who will tell you that Kenny Dalglish reacts to interviewers as if they are trying to mug him, that he tends to meet their inquiries with the verbal equivalent of Mace.”

Ball seems to be one of those rare people that have made it in life without the need for cynicism. There is no shrugging off well-wishers, critics or earnest journalists. He is straightforward and has retained a sense of conviction and integrity when others might have compromised their personalities and become more guarded. “At times I think it’s a very harsh sport, a very political sport. As you grow up, it becomes a lot harder. You see and hear things you’re not going to like. If you need to speak up though, you do.”

We talk about Clarke Carlisle and the mental side of the game, the ‘Get on with it’ approach which tends to prevail inside clubs still anchored to the 20th century. “Managers want to get a reaction from you. They also might put their arm around your shoulder, give you praise. It’s a great thing in a manager if they can be more personal – tell players what they’re really thinking. The mental side – that’s a side in football that has to be developed.”

Schadenfreude is anathema to Ball. He speaks warmly of former managers and fellow players. On Micky Mellon (now at Shrewsbury Town): “I never really played in my best position under Micky. People sometimes suffered from weekly changes [to the team]. But he’s a lovely man, an infectious man.” Jamie Proctor: “He can be anything, Procs.” Graham Alexander: “He spoke when I left, said ‘I’ll give you a glowing reference. Get managers to call me.’ I’d love to play for Graham again. To pick his brains at any time, which I’m able to do, is refreshing.” Josh Morris: “If you ask Josh, I think he would like to have stayed [at Fleetwood]. I’m sure he could play every week in the Championship though.” Jamille Matt: “A fit Jamille is a great addition to any team. He’s been working really hard.” Antoni Sarcevic: “He can shift, he’s strong, pre-season he’s up there with the top runners. 2014/15 it was a new league playing against clubs that have the technology to go and look at different players and think ‘How can we stop the best players?’ Sarc did well, but I’m sure you’ll see a better Sarc this season.” Mark Roberts: “Robbo is a really intelligent man on the pitch and off the pitch. I’ll be friends with Mark for a long time.” Jeff Hughes: “It’s a learning curve for a young lad playing around Jeff. He plays with his heart on his sleeve.” Nick Haughton: “This is a kid learning when to pass, learning when to do his trickery. Again – he can be anything.” Matty Blair: “Real. Genuine. Amongst the group [at Fleetwood], I met some really good friends. Those who came to work, wanted to work.”

What about ‘Bally’ as he is affectionately known, however? Where now? “I played with some great players at 18, 19, who are now doing normal jobs. My mum always said if you make a living from football, you’ve made it. That is my mindset.” The grounded comments are sincere – slowly crafted from David Ball’s easy-going demeanour. “My mum and my dad are a massive part of who I am now. Dad would never question me. You need to do it this way…”

But what of ambition from this non-hubristic man? And his next club? “When I initially dropped down two divisions into League Two [from Peterborough to Fleetwood in July 2012] it was a big thing, but I wanted to showcase my ability.” At 22 a necessary gamble, but now – three years later – less likely even though discussions have taken place.

A total of four clubs are currently on the radar – all of them sleeping giants, one could say, situated in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the south. Huddersfield has been mooted via The Huddersfield Daily Examiner due to Ball’s links with coach, Steve Eyre who he played under at both Man City and Rochdale. The language in the article of “back-up striker” though is either off the mark or misguided. Ball is no ‘support act’. Squad rotation is all well and good, but money is not the thing with this Whitefield man who lives in St Helens – first team football is.

“Personally, I wouldn’t sit on a [juicy] contract. It’s a short career. If you’ve got opportunities to play, then play.”

Other factors jar with the interesting prospect of Ball teaming up with Huddersfield’s ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’ (BAME) manager, Chris Powell – one of only six BAMEs in the top four tiers much to the chagrin of John Barnes (“Very few black managers can lose their job and get another.”). Ross Wilson, former Director of Football Operations at Huddersfield and “middleman to the boardroom”, but poached by Southampton three months ago, knows a lot of young players well courtesy of his network of contacts. Having such a character around the place gives the players faith, belief in the wider dreams of the club. His departure is, in many quarters, a wrench.

Wilson, as scouting and recruitment man, is symbolic of the way the game is going. Financial Fair Play (FFP) austerity has had the effect of modernising clubs, of adding a necessary thrift – putting them on the “cutting edge…with a strong emphasis on player recruitment and analytics”. His replacement Stuart Webber is from the same sharp-suited, thirty-something brigade and may just entice similar players and recalibrate the Championship side, however – a nice balance between youth and established professionals.

This takes us back to Fleetwood and the hard truth behind David Ball’s exit. Word around Highbury seems to be: You sack the cake lady – ten cake ladies. But you do not do this. You do not oust your main man. But what if your club’s average attendance is a mere 3,500? Three thousand five hundred devoted fans full of iron and wine, but nonetheless a trifling number despite the vigorous strides of the club. Downsize, sacrifice and re-model are all ugly words. Graham Alexander, Fleetwood’s manager, readily admits: “With some of the players who have left, it wasn’t a decision directly linked to their ability. But with age and cost. These are the realities of competing at the level we are at.”

Indeed. And Financial Fair Play when reduced to “League One clubs can spend a maximum of 60% of their turnover on wages” compounds the picture further; simplistic analysis points to a club earning £700,000 on tickets per season (3500 x £200). Messi alone would barely survive three weeks were he to play on the Highbury lawn mown by Dale Frith.

So Fleetwood haven’t so much gambled on their future as been bound by the FFP Stasi. Memories of Ball though (Bally to his mates) the no.23 maestro…23 because his son Mason was born on the 23rd May? His thoughts on young players tell us everything we need to know: “They should be fearless in their play, showcase their talents…take the game by the scruff of the neck. I know how quickly you go from 20 to 25.”

One day this Fleetwood Town great will make a fine coach.

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