Kevin Ball admits his short time at Fulham wasn’t the success he had hoped it would be.
After 10 years with Sunderland, the veteran midfielder joined the Whites in December 1999, making his debut in a goalless home draw with Ipswich Town on Boxing Day.
But he would pull on a white shirt on just 19 more occasions, before returning north to sign for Burnley in the summer of 2000 when it became clear he wouldn’t feature regularly under new boss Jean Tigana.
“Prior to moving to Fulham, I didn’t want to be a squad player at Sunderland; I didn’t want to come into training with nothing to aim for,” Ball told fulhamfc.com. “I was 35 and I knew I could still play as I felt I had more to offer.
“I spoke to Sunderland boss Peter Reid and we talked about a pathway into coaching but I knew I could carry on playing. I had a few clubs come in for me but I was friends with Paul Bracewell having played with him at Sunderland.
“I knew him well and I knew what his ideas were and he gave me the opportunity to join Fulham. I spoke to another club on the way down but by then I’d made my mind up.
“What didn’t help me when I joined was that I had a slight injury so I was chasing my tail. I came just before Christmas and I was playing when I wasn’t fit. But I thoroughly enjoyed the period of time I was there and, to this day, if we’d taken our chances we could have been higher up the league under Paul. We played some good football but we could never finish teams off. It was a shame as we had some good players in the team.”
Bracewell departed SW6 in March 2000, with Karl-Heinz Riedle and Roy Evans taking charge until the end of the campaign, before the appointment of Tigana.
“I was disappointed to see Paul go,” said Ball. “Karl took over briefly and then when Jean Tigana arrived he had opportunities to bring in more players. I didn’t have a problem with that, that’s the way football works.
“We went to Clairefontaine with Jean and I remember being under the Eiffel Tower when I got a call from Burnley manager Sam Ellis to ask if I fancied it there. Two days later I met him and signed.
“I enjoyed my time at Fulham; the only disappointment was it didn’t turn out how I wanted. The objective when I went there was to help them achieve promotion and, unfortunately, we didn’t do that.
“At Burnley, the objective was just to do as well as we could. We finished seventh twice and I played 90-odd games and I proved there was still plenty left in me.”
Hastings-born Ball started out as an apprentice at Coventry City, before joining Portsmouth and then Sunderland.
He recalled: “If I’m honest, I was an absolute head-the-ball at Coventry when it came to doing things correctly. It would be unfair on teenagers to call myself a typical teenager as some of the things I did, I look back and think what on earth was I doing?
“I thought I was mature enough to move away from home but I wasn’t. But the nice thing about it was that it taught me a valuable lesson – if you want something in life, you’ve got to work hard at it. My ambition was to be a professional footballer and, having mucked around the way I did, I almost cost myself that opportunity.
“I went to Portsmouth and, from there on in, I never looked back. I worked hard on every aspect of my game and was there for seven or eight years.
“I loved my time at Pompey, there are some fantastic people there and I’m really sad to see the situation they’re in right now. But back then I needed a new challenge and the chance to go to Sunderland came about, although my wife told me Matt Busby had rung me, when in fact it was Viv Busby!
“I came up to Sunderland and had a look about and signed. It was a massive ask of my wife. Portsmouth was only an hour and a half from home, Sunderland was a minimum of seven, and we had a little boy.”
The decision certainly paid off for Ball, however, as he went on to make close to 400 appearances for the Black Cats.
“It worked out as I went on to play in the Premier League, the FA Cup Final, the amazing 1998 Play-Off Final at Wembley, won a player of the year award and captained the side regularly,” he stated. “There were lots of highlights, some lowlights as well with relegation but that’s what makes the good times so much more enjoyable.
“I was in my 10th season when I left. And for any player in the modern game to spend that long at one club is a fantastic achievement. I’m not blowing my own trumpet there, I’d say that to any player who has done the same.”
Now back at Sunderland as Senior Professional Development Coach, Ball oversees the club’s Under-21s. And he’s looking forward to seeing two of his former sides meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
“My job is the same as Kit Symons’ at Fulham,” said Ball. “We still keep in contact and I’m looking forward to coming down to Motspur Park later on in the season.
“I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game. I like watching live games and seeing how different teams set up, and the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light is always brilliant.