For a man who failed to earn contracts at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bolton Wanderers because he was deemed ‘too small’, Alan Ball certainly made a big mark on English football.
From humble origins at Blackpool where he became their youngest league debutant, to breaking transfer records at Everton and Arsenal, Ball was never too far from the spotlight.
It was the Tangerines who offered him apprentice forms after his dad had wrangled him a trial under then-boss Ron Suart in September 1961. Ball turned professional the following May and, ironically, made his debut against Liverpool at Anfield.
Quickly carving out a reputation as a goalscoring midfielder, Ball went on to net 44 times in 126 appearances for Blackpool, earning a place in England’s 1966 World Cup squad. It proved the platform that would skyrocket his career.
His performances inspired the Three Lions through to the final against West Germany and Ball had a hand in the Martin Peters goal that made it 2-1 to the hosts, before teeing up Geoff Hurst for his now infamous strike that still evokes debate about whether the ball had crossed the line.
Ball’s arrival onto the world scene made a mockery of those who had labelled him too small – and Everton were lying in wait for the new World Cup winner.
It took a then-British record £110,000 fee for Harry Catterick to entice him to Goodison from Blackpool, but it was worth every penny.
In typical fashion, Ball marked his debut at Craven Cottage against Fulham with the only goal in a 1-0 win, but it was seven days later that his love affair with Evertonians really ignited.
The first Merseyside derby of the 1966/67 season came just three games into the campaign and 64,318 spectators crammed into Goodison Park to see it. Everton won 3-1 and Ball scored two of the goals. The fiery Lancastrian revelled in the derby atmosphere and showed that unique sense of theatre that became his trademark - a real player for the big occasion if ever there was one.
Later that season he was the scourge of Liverpool once again when over 100,000 fans saw him claim the only goal of an FA Cup fifth-round tie – more than 60,000 watched the game at Goodison, and another 40,000 saw the ‘live’ screening at Anfield. His first campaign as an Everton player ended with his name at the top of the Club goal chart - netting 18 times to outscore the likes of Derek Temple and Alex Young. The following season Ball went two better, scoring 20 goals in all competitions and the fact that he regularly hit double figures was an enormous bonus for the team.
He was now firmly established as a genuine ‘Goodison idol’ with an array of talents that had the Evertonians drooling. But in 1969/70 his career would hit new heights as one third of the Holy Trinity alongside Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey. It is, to this day, the most revered midfield triumvirate in the Toffees’ history and the three played a huge part in bringing the title to Goodison that season.
But all good things must come to an end, however hard they are to take. And none came harder to comprehend than Ball’s transfer to Arsenal for another Club-record £220,000 fee in December 1971.
By the time the ink dried on that deal, he had made 251 Everton appearances, which had yielded a highly impressive 79 goals. He had also collected 39 of his 72 England caps whilst an Everton player.
Ball would go on to make a further 400 career appearances for the Gunners, Southampton, Philadelphia Fury, Vancouver Whitecaps, Blackpool and Bristol Rovers.
Crossing the white line into coaching, he had a 15-year career as a manager which included spells in the top flight with Portsmouth, Southampton and Manchester City.
But it’s his time in the royal blue, of course, for which he is best remembered and he was a natural choice to be named as an Everton Giant, awarded his place in the Club’s Hall of Fame in 2001.
And despite playing for and managing a host of top clubs, Ball made no secret of his true footballing love, encapsulated by his now-iconic quote: “Once Everton has touched you, nothing will be the same.”