In 1990, Denis Smith snapped up Portsmouth captain and centre-half Kevin Antony Ball for a measly £350,000, unwittingly beginning a Sunderland career that spanned a decade. By staying so long, Bally outlasted all of his early nineties Sunderland contemporaries, notching up 25 goals in well over 350 appearances for the club. Under Mick Buxton, Bally converted to a central midfield role where he was to remain until early last season when Peter Reid finally let him go to Fulham for an impressive £500,000 - a seemingly unbelievable piece of business given the ceaseless service Kevin gave to the club and city in which he, and his family, still live today. During the close season, Bally completed a move back north to Burnley, where he met up with him to chew the fat and relive a few of the many memories he holds dear alongside his two First Division Championship Medals (1996 and 1999) and FA Cup Runner-up Medal (1992).
S&C: Looking back on your time at Sunderland, you're widely regarded as the best Sunderland captain since the War. You still have a fantastic relationship with the fans. Does it surprise you, then, that the team that won the pub quiz in the Rosedene one Monday night recently was called "Ooh Bally Bally?"
KB: No, that's tremendous. That's a tremendous accolade, for people to do that. That was one of the things I missed the most when I went down to Fulham. When you've played in front of the supporters I had done for the past nine and a half years previous to going to Fulham, and the passionate support they have, home and away, it takes a lot to get it out of your system, an' that. Obviously, I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing in front of 'em. Coming to Burnley, though, they're also very passionate about their club and, like Sunderland, they've got very good support. We took five and a half thousand to Bolton on the first game of the season.
When I came, our supporters were thronging the entrance, the last time I remember that happening was when we played there with Sunderland, the year we won the Championship. There's nothing better for any player when they turn up at an opposing team's ground to see away fans outnumbering the home fans around the entrance. It's a tremendous feeling; it gives you a massive, massive buzz. Sunderland are renowned for doing that. Wherever we played, you knew that when you turned up, they were gonna be there. The play-off final at Wembley, I'll never forget that. Drawing into Wembley, it was just a mass, and I'm talking a mass of red and white. It was an unbelievable sight, really fantastic.
S&C: So you miss it, do you?
KB: Oh definitely, I'm not gonna lie. A funny story, I sat down at dinner with a gentleman when I was at Fulham, it was an end-of-season dinner. We were talking about a different thing, he asked how I was enjoying it. I said that it obviously takes a bit of settling in, what with the family still being up north. He asked if I missed it. I said I did, obviously. Having played somewhere for so long and enjoyed it as much as I did, and played in front of the people who are so great to play in front of, I really did miss it. I said I still did. He said, "That's funny, I was in business and worked for a company for 20-odd years. I absolutely loved it. I've left the company now and I still miss it and can't get over it."
I thought he'd be saying to me it took him a year to get over it, and asked how long has it been now since he left. "Three and a half years, and I still miss it." So there I am getting all depressed thinking: "Oh my good God does it take that long?" But I don't think I'll ever not miss the place. I went to Maine Road to watch the Lads for the second game of the season, to see the players, you know, keep in touch and that. You can't take away the memories I have from there.
S&C: What memory stands out for you?
KB: There's too many, don't get me started. I think the biggest for me personally was obviously my testimonial last year against Sampdoria. It was fantastic and I enjoyed every single minute of that day from getting up in the morning with my family, to turning up at the ground and all the supporters turning out to meet you and congratulate you. It was fantastic. As an individual, from a personal point of view, it gave me a fantastic feeling and was unbelievable for myself and my family.
My wife Sharon and the kids really enjoyed the day, as did all my family that travelled up. I had twenty of my mates from down home come up - they got a bus and we all met up on the night for a few beers an' that. It was funny, I didn't get too drunk on the night, 'cos I remember wanting to enjoy every single minute, and I did, it was a fantastic day.
Professionally, as well as personally for the club, I think my favourite moment was when we finally lifted the trophy against Birmingham when we won the Championship for the second time. I think more so than the first because, having won it in ‘95-‘96 and subsequently been relegated the following season, then going through the play-off agony the way we did, and then the way we bounced back in the manner we did was a fantastic achievement. It was four years hard work coming to fruition and we won the Championship four or five games before the end of the season.
Voice in the Background: Bally, Stop talking bollocks!
KB: I think a lot of teams might then have switched off and lost the last three or four games or got crap results, but we didn't. So that was good. When we came to the last game of the season, again it was a tremendous day, and fair play to everyone on the organisational side of things, they really created a fantastic day for everyone. The game was pretty good too, a great end-of-season game, Birmingham came up, obviously Trevor Francis had got 'em wound up and said "Look, I don't want you coming up here and laying down, you go out there and beat them." As it was they took a 1-0 lead, the game was quite physical, quite a passionate game, and we wound up 2-1 winners. But to walk out and then pick the trophy up in front of 42,000 supporters, with fireworks going off, was very satisfying. I remember thinking: "All the hard work was worth it, now we're back where we belong. Let's stay there this time."
Funnily enough though, it was tinged with a bit of sadness. I've got a great photo indoors that I was given, it was on the back of the centenary programme and I've got a copy of it. It was me stood, with my back to the camera, holding the trophy up high towards the fans and then, down in the corner, there was a Vaux sign. It was symbolic and quite sad that Sunderland went up the year Vaux was closed down. So, whilst it was a great year for the club, it was disappointing as well. But for me professionally it was the best thing that could have happened. Saying that, I've got so many memories, I could literally write a book about the times I had there. You know, you have ups, you have downs, you have all sorts of things happen, but I'm one of these people that tends to learn from the bad times and enjoy the good times twice as much.
S&C: A lot of Sunderland fans were disappointed you didn't stay on in a coaching role. Did you ever consider it, or was your main objective simply to keep playing for as long as possible?
KB: Peter Reid and I never spoke about a coaching role, but from my own point of view, the opportunity to go to Fulham and play was the important thing, the manager respected that, and I thanked him. As a player, you're a long time finished, so to speak. You don't really want to stop playing. I know I could have stayed at Sunderland and I could've played a bit, and as it was it was unfortunate for both Stefan and Gavin they got injured. As it turned out, that could've resulted in me playing most of the season in the end.
At the time the gaffer was changing his team around and building towards the future, and obviously I was coming towards, shall we say, the "latter stages" of my career! I have to respect why he wanted to do that, and I fully understood why. It'd be no different to what I would do as a manager. But the opportunity came to go to Fulham, to still play. I was disappointed when Paul Bracewell got the sack there. I thought he was doing a great job. I think, given another year, he probably would've got them promoted. Then the opportunity came to join Stan Ternant here at Burnley and obviously I knew Stan from years ago. I thought "Yeah, I'll have a go at that," and now I'm a Claret and loving it.
S&C: You wouldn't rule out a move in the future? Would you ever come back to Sunderland as a coach?
KB: I've got to honestly say that my ideal aim, in years to come when I'm really thinking "This is it, I don't think I can do any more," I would love to go back to Sunderland in some sort of capacity. It's a club that'll always be close to my heart, a fantastic place to play, and I don't think it's something I'll ever forget. Listen to us, you'll be crying your eyes out in a minute!