This one off special interview is with an absolute Sunderland legend! Making over 300 appearances, scoring 21 goals from midfield but more famous for his passion, spirit and tough tackles! That’s right I’ve caught up with Bally to chat about his time on Wearside.
WAW: What are your first football memories and who were your heroes growing up?
Kevin: “I first went to Highbury to support Arsenal with my dad but changed my allegiances to Leeds United after the 1972 FA Cup final. As for heroes, Alan Ball for Arsenal as well as Liam Brady but then you had Bremner, Norman Hunter because he was a tough tackler. Also, Peter Lorimer because he could kick a ball ridiculously hard; then Allan Clarke and Paul Reaney for Leeds too. I remember the 1973 cup final and Jimmy Montgomery broke my heart, he still winds me up today about it! It’s spooky really that I’ve ended up here and now I’m working with Jimmy – a man who I really admire.”
WAW: When you first came to Sunderland, how did Dennis Smith and Viv Busby help you settle in?
Kevin: “First of all I’d like to say that Dennis was miles ahead of his time; he took me around the area I’d be living in and he made sure I liked it and I got to know him well. He wanted to make sure that I was making the right decision before offering me the contract so he waited a few days before doing so. People nowadays say managers are groundbreaking, it’s not as true though as Dennis was 28 years ahead of his time, in terms of his training programme. Dennis and Viv as a duo were brilliant and really helped me settle in Sunderland; Dennis was tough and demanding and you didn’t want to mess him about! He was loyal to players and was well respected, a true top bloke and I’ve never looked back.”
WAW: What was it like to play for Sunderland?
Kevin: “When I look back on my career it was challenging and tough but ultimately rewarding. I was lucky to get where I wanted to be so quickly; once I got it I knew what it meant to make the supporters happy. Even when we lost it made you think I need to sort it out next time.”
WAW: The 1992 FA Cup final must’ve been a massive disappointment, have you ever watched it back?
Kevin: “Never. Malcolm Crosby was brilliant in the build up to the game; we stayed in the Tickled Trout hotel in Maidstone and when we pulled in on the team bus, the actor Leslie Nielsen from The Naked Gun was there in the car park! We all thought it was an omen as we’d just watched it; we tried explaining the FA Cup final but he didn’t have a bl-- clue what it was but we gave him a club tie anyway!
I can still picture Tony Norman making a save from Tim Breacker of West Ham early on with his weaker hand; it’s probably one of the best saves I’ve seen. The Chelsea game in the quarter final was f--- brilliant! It’s what cup games are really made of, Gordon’s header was one of the best moments. Then of course we played Norwich in the semi at Hillsborough, I thought it was all over for me as I picked up a knee injury, everyone I knew was upset but it wasn’t as bad as first thought and then I was focused on being fit for the final.”
WAW: How did it feel to receive the wrong medal?
Kevin: “Hated it. Absolutely hated it. Once Liverpool had scored there was no going back, we had our chance when John Byrne missed a chance just before half time, heartbreaking, as he’d scored in every round. We felt what’s the point when we got the winners’ medals when we hadn’t won; you’ve got to look at it as ‘do they remember the runners up?’ Do they f--!”
WAW: How did the atmosphere change when Peter Reid arrived?
Kevin: “The training was short and sharp, Reidy was brash and loud which is exactly what we needed, although I’d never talk ill of Micky Buxton because I had a great affinity with him, he was a tremendous bloke. Once we’d gotten over the possibility of relegation to the second division the mood massively lifted; players got a new lease of life especially people like Dicky Ord. Bobby Saxton was the best thing Peter done at Sunderland, bringing him in completely changed things for the better.”
WAW: What are your best memories of Reidy and Bobby?
Kevin: “Both of them were excellent coaches but most of all top blokes. Reidy was the face of the club and Bobby was the one who done the things behind the scenes. I remember at Burnley, the game had been delayed and Reidy sat us down and to calm our nerves, he told us a joke! The best bit of advice I got from Bobby Saxton was to do what you do best and do it well” which was great advice.
When we won the Championship, for the second time, we still had loads of games to go and I was still running around in training working my b--- off, there was a disagreement in training with Sacko over a tackle which resulted in Sacko poking me in the chest, I said “Sacko don’t poke me in the chest” to which he replied “do you want me to get the gaffer Kevin?” I just said “no” and walked off. It was hilarious after, as Bobby knew I was still in the zone.
After the play off final when Micky Gray had missed the penalty we were all sat in silence in the changing room, all of a sudden Bobby stood up and said aloud, to Micky “it was a s--- penalty anyway!” The whole changing room erupted into laughter; another moment of a genius coach knowing what to say and when to say it. The best thing I can say again is that they were top blokes and a fantastic time at the club."
WAW: Who were the best players you played against?
Kevin: “Kieron Dyer at the time when he was at Ipswich and first breaking onto the scene. He was so hard to mark as he just glided across the floor, other players that were tough to play against were Matty Holland, Gianfranco Zola and Patrick Vieira.”
WAW: How did preparations change for derby days?
Kevin: “It’s interesting to see how each manager prepares for derbies. As a player, a manager, as a fan you just want to win the game, there’s three ways to approach the derbies: 1) unbelievably important, goes without saying but treat it completely different 2) treat it as another game or 3) don’t put emotion into it but treat it differently, which I believe is the right way. Reidy used to treat it as normal but mentally you just didn’t want to loose, there’s always more edge in those games too. No matter what there’s always the bragging rights which mean a lot to the supporters and you never want to let them down.”
WAW: What was going through your head when you hit Sorensen’s bar in ’99?
Kevin: “At the time it was ‘Oh f-- don’t go in!’ I was brought on to ‘sort them out’in the middle of the park as they were getting the better of us and they’d brought on their big guns. To be honest, I couldn't wait to get on. To say I was cool about watching the ball hit my own crossbar would be lying because I was s--- myself! All I can say is at least it gave people something to talk about.”
WAW: What was your favourite SAFC goal?
Kevin: “Well there was the one away at West Brom when we won 3-2 from 2-0 down, that was a left footed volley, there’s the one at Wolves another volley to finish a pinpoint move. I loved the one against Sheffield United in the play-off semi final; the one v Nottingham Forest when Chris Waddle played the ball in, I’ve always said if I was foreign they’d be talking about it for years! But the one against Chelsea, the diving header in the 3-0 win was magnificent as it was live on Sky and that just proves if you’re not mentally correct for a game then you’re f---, we were mentally right and we deserved it.”
WAW: Who were the best players to play alongside?
Kevin: “To name names would be unfair but the two promotion teams were fantastic. The whole squad deserved it and all credit to the championship winners as we had an unbelievable love for each other and we done everything right; the 105 points was an awesome record, look at Wolves millions spent and only 99 points – Reidy hardly spent a penny. I was proud to play alongside some of the players I did. The starting 11 to the support players, we had everything from skill and unbridled talent in Martin Smith who was also young and enthusiastic; we had the two Mickys and then myself who could tackle and lead the team.”
WAW: What is your current role at the club?
Kevin: “Without going into too much detail, I help young players settle in and when they’re out on loan, among other roles. There’s a massive importance of players going out on loan as not everyone has the same pathway of academy, reserves and then first team, some have to work their way up. Only a few are chosen to be footballers and they need to be really gifted but they also need to go away and be lads when they’re in academies and make the most of it.”
I’d like to massively thank Kevin Ball for answering my questions so honestly; it was a real pleasure to talk to one of our greatest club legends.
Thanks for reading and all the best.