LIFTING THE LID: Ahead of this next International Break, we sat down with Michael Ball to hear how it felt to represent his country before injury cut his England career short.
“You don’t want to be the one-cap wonder…”
Former Everton, Manchester City and Rangers left-back Michael Ball is reminiscing about winning his first cap for his country as England defeated Spain 3-0 in 2001.
“But unfortunately, that was the only cap I ever got,” Ball tells BETDAQ. “Injuries set me back and took me out of the international set-up for a significant piece of time, and in that period Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge came to the fore, and the rest was history.”
While Ball ended up winning just the one cap for England, it’s a moment he still treasures.
“It was one of the proudest moments of my career,” Ball says. “As a kid we all know if you’re playing football in the park or garden and you’re trying to emulate your favourite players, when you come round to the Euros and the World Cup, you wish you could be a part of playing in one of those tournaments. You dream as a kid of playing for England and so to be a part of the England set-up and get an England cap was a huge achievement for myself and my family.”
Having been involved in the England set-up as a youngster, from with the schoolboys through to the under-21s, Ball had hopes of going on to establish himself in the senior squad.
And in 1999, nearly two years before winning his cap against Spain, it looked like he might have a chance. Ball was called up by Kevin Keegan as a 19-year-old for the England squad to face Hungary at a time when there was not a great abundance of left-back options for the Three Lions.
“I was just hoping I’d get that opportunity then,” Ball says. “I think Michael Gray was around at the time, England didn’t really have many left-back options. It was a position I was hoping to sneak myself into. I was hoping I’d get the nod that time but it wasn’t to be.”
Ball failed to make it onto the pitch during the 1-1 draw, but he would be called up a year later to Peter Taylor’s squad to face Italy – though he would miss out once more.
“It was very close,” he recalls. “I got asked to warm up. Ray Clemence was in charge of the subs at the time. He was shouting my name, ‘Bally, Bally’. But as he got closer, I nodded and said yes, and he said ‘get Carragher’ as Jamie Carragher was a little further down so he couldn’t hear him! That was the closest I got and you start to wonder if this will ever happen…”
Three months later, however, Ball was back in England’s next squad, this time under a third different manager, as new boss Sven-Göran Eriksson announced his first Three Lions selection.
“It was exciting as we were all anticipating how he was going to train,” Ball says. “Sven was always on the training field doing a lot of the coaching. He wasn’t a manager who dictated to his coaches to do all the work, he was really involved from the get-go and wanted to implement how he wanted his football teams to play. Sven had been brought in to bring success so the lads were all just focused and wanted to see what he was all about.”
Ball added: “It was just funny that week in the canteen for myself really because I got down there pretty early. I just picked a table and thought I’ll sit here and then people can join me. And then I noticed as the rest of the players started rolling in that I was sitting on the Manchester United table! I looked over to my left and saw Carragher, Robbie Fowler and the rest of the boys on the Scouse table. They all started giving me a bit of a stick, calling me Judas and that I’d joined the wrong table!”
When Eriksson named his starting line-up for the Spain game, it was third time unlucky for Ball, who once again missed out, with Charlton’s 31-year-old Chris Powell getting the nod at left-back.
“When he picked the line-up, Chris Powell started and I thought it’s going to happen to me again,” Ball says. “He deserved it, he was playing well, but he was old and I couldn’t see him being the future.”
But this being Eriksson’s first game in charge and keen to take a look at a number of options in his squad, the England boss made a raft of changes at the break – including Ball, who was finally now set to win his first international cap against the likes of Pep Guardiola, Raul and Luis Enrique.
“You’re warming up before the game and you hope the manager will keep his promise that he’s going make a whole load of changes at half time,” Ball says. “You’re warming up but you’re always having a little look over to the bench, making sure if he is actually going to do it. Depending on the way the game goes he might have changed his mind, he might feel the pressure to keep it the way it is and so you’ve got that question mark. Me and Frank Lampard were warming up quite heavily and luckily enough we got called back to get stripped and get ready to start the second half.
“It was just great to be a part of it all. Sven made a lot of changes and then to beat Spain who were still a good side, to win 3-0, was fantastic. (Gaizka) Mendieta, I was up against him at the time, who I think was probably one of the most expensive wingers at that moment, so to put my wits against him was a great experience. I think the first couple of touches settled me down, I did a bit of a one-two and a long ball through over to Michael Owen. And then I just enjoyed the rest of the game. Just being a part of playing for England was great and I just wish I could have done it a bit more…”
Heading out of Villa Park that evening, Ball would have been forgiven for thinking that was the first of many more England caps to come.
A knee injury, however, would soon rear its ugly head and go on to cause Ball a number of problems throughout his career. The left-back would be called up to future England squads, only to have to pull out due to fitness issues.
Meanwhile, a young Ashley Cole was emerging, who would go on to become one of the world’s best left-backs and win 107 caps for his country, while Wayne Bridge developed to provide a more than adequate deputy.
“I had a very bad knee injury that took me out of the game for over two years,” Ball says. “So you know you’re climbing an uphill battle, but within those two years and maybe the two years before there probably wasn’t many left backs available. I think Phil Neville was playing left-back. There was Gareth Barry, Chris Powell, Michael Gray, Stuart Pearce was still holding onto his international career as well, so there was a huge opportunity for me to try and get in there first and get that position to hold for as long as possible.
“But unfortunately, a bad knee injury took me out of the game for two years and within those two years Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge, two fantastic left-backs, got themselves in there and made that competition their own, and unfortunately that was the end of my international career.”