Neville Dalton pays tribute to Alan Ball

Neville Dalton is a journalist with the BBC News website and a Portsmouth fan of 40 years. His expressed views are his and not necessarily those of the BBC.

It's easy to be complimentary about someone after they have died.

Very often the trouble with obituaries is that you never discover the dead person's real character - only a sanitised, respectfully polite version.

Chances are, that's what you'll get over the next couple of days as the world of football jostles to pay tribute to a man who truly merits the epithet an England great.

But what you'll also see and hear in those tributes is genuine respect and admiration for a man who was a winner on the pitch and tried so very hard to be the same off it.

The death of Alan Ball at the ridiculously early age of 61 will have particular resonance among fans of my age who recall him as a player in his prime as well as the first manager to take Pompey to the seemingly always unattainable Promised Land of top-flight league football.

Too small

Not only is his death another break with England's rarefied past, but it marks the loss of a phenomenally competitive sportsman whose enthusiasm rubbed off on those around him and whose presence commanded respect and attention even in a room of modern-day greats.

Alan Ball was a World Cup winner at an age when most professionals are still striving to break into their clubs' first teams.

The diminutive flame-haired figure, who was told by his hometown club that he was too small to make a professional footballer, twice prompted clubs to break the English transfer record to acquire his special services.

And then, when his legs could no longer propel him at the speed he was used to for as long as he needed to, he set out to share his knowledge and expertise among a new generation of player in the hope of attaining more glory as a manager.

We all know it never quite worked out that way, and while his managerial career is constantly dismissed as a slightly embarrassing postscript to his illustrious playing days, we on the South Coast know that's not quite the whole story.

Yes, Pompey spent just one tough season in the old First Division, and no, he hardly set the world alight at Blackpool, Southampton and Manchester City.

Enemies

But under Alan Ball, Pompey produced their first period of sustained excellence for a generation, denied promotion in successive seasons by the narrowest of margins before clinching the prize in style at the third time of asking.

He produced a winning team with minimal investment, and with a squad that by today's standards was tiny.

And had chairman John Deacon supported his valiant efforts to produce a team capable of staying in the top division with additional investment rather than pulling the rug from under his feet by forcing out captain Mick Kennedy just as it appeared the club was turning the corner, who knows how Pompey's history would have panned out?

Alan Ball had some enemies in the cities of Stoke and Manchester, where, it would be fair to say, he failed to meet expectations.

But he will always command respect and appreciation in Hampshire - and particularly Portsmouth, not least for his achievements on his return to Fratton.

Mistakes

By January 1998 the climate was somewhat gloomier: Pompey in big trouble financially and on the pitch.

When Ball was reappointed manager, Pompey were bottom of the second-tier Division One, two points behind their nearest rivals.

The club was shedding staff left, right and centre, as it lurched into administration, and Ball would soon be forced to sell Pompey's on-pitch lifeline, John Aloisi, for a knockdown 650,000.

But not before he had kept them up, against the odds, with a series of performances that encapsulated the Alan Ball philosophy of non-stop commitment.

There were plenty of mistakes in his two Pompey eras - Rory Allen for 1 million anybody? And what about Scott McGarvey - "The fans are going to love this lad."

But there was plenty to cheer - a strong, uncompromising, yet flair-filled team, containing the likes of Alan Knight, Noel Blake, Billy Gilbert, Vince Hilaire, Kevin O'Callaghan and Kennedy.

And even survival itself.

And it wasn't just at Fratton Park that his managerial and coaching skills shone.

In his final years as a player, Ball was a key figure in Southampton's amazing transformation into a force to be reckoned with, qualifying for Europe and entertaining a packed Dell week after week.

Attractive

He returned after his first spell at Pompey to take the reins at what was then a Southampton side established in the top flight (though regular survivors of the annual relegation fight).

He took one look at the club and his football brain honed in on one languid but exceptionally talented individual. And he decided to build a team around him.

Ball succeeded where myriad managers at club and international level failed - he got the best out of Matt Le Tissier, an individual who might have become one of the world's best players.

Under Alan Ball, Southampton played attractive, attacking football.

And while some "up the road" never forgave him for walking out on the club to try his luck with Manchester City, in front of crowds two or three times the size of those at the Dell, I think it's fair to say Alan Ball was one of the few able to unify Pompey and Saints supporters.

In recent years, as a football pundit on BBC Radio Solent, Ball could never hide his love for the two South Coast teams and their fans.

It's a tribute to the area that the Lancastrian who made his name at Everton should choose to make his home in Hampshire, with his beloved late wife, Lesley and their three children, Jimmy, Mandy and Keeley.

I first met him professionally as a reporter in Southampton, attending a charity function the day after watching second-division Pompey fight out an honourable goalless draw with high-flying Spurs in the Milk Cup.

I introduced myself, did the interview for the newspaper and then mentioned I had been at White Hart Lane the night before.

Ball's eyes lit up, and despite his busy schedule, we sat chatting for ages, dissecting the game and weighing up Pompey's chances in the replay.

When I next bumped into him, a few weeks later, Pompey had disposed of Spurs at the third attempt and were preparing for a quarter-final at Oxford, who were also a division above Pompey at the time.

I mentioned that because of the Manor Ground's limited capacity, I had been unable to get a ticket.

Ball said: "Don't worry. You'll get one."

Nothing arrived, but I decided to take a chance and drive to Oxford in the hope of seeing Ball as he arrived.

Respect

I sought him out, began to reintroduce myself and was interrupted by Ball's familiar dismissive tone that he sometimes used when he was in no mood for chatting.

"It's on the gate," he said. And it was.

It wasn't a great occasion - we lost heavily. But it was memorable, not least because someone that "big" and clearly so busy at the time should honour his promise to someone he barely knew.

We met occasionally since, the last time at Southampton's terrific new ground at St Mary's, where he continued to command respect, not least among a generation who had never seen him play.

He was cocky; he could be antagonistic. But he was a football man through and through.

Alan Ball was a winner, and today a lot of people who knew him - even from afar - will feel they are losers.