England’s 1966 World Cup win - my time in the company of Alan Ball
PUBLISHED: 09:24 30 July 2020 | UPDATED: 09:24 30 July 2020
In honour of today (July 30) being the 54th anniversary of the England 1966 World Cup win, sports writer Steve Birley has put together a few memories of his time working with Alan Ball who played such a big part on that summer’s aftenoon back in ‘66.
This Thursday (July 30) marks the date that 54 years ago England were crowned World Cup champions and I was fortunate enough, during the 1990s to work alongside, and with, the player who, in that World Cup final, was named Man of the Match, Alan Ball, writes Steve Birley.
Our association began when ‘Bally’ pitched up as manager at Exeter City Football Club where I was the commercial manager.
We immediately had something in common as he had moved to Exeter from Berkshire and I too had made a similar move, as I had previously been the promotions executive at Reading Football Club.
I am very clear as to what brought me to the new City manager’s attention - a bunch of grapes!
Yes, yours truly was known, at that time, as someone who tended to think ‘outside the box’ in terms of marketing football.
I had already been ‘ticked off’ by the Football Association for a pre-match entertainment event that saw a chap (one of the City commercial staff) holding an old fashioned blunderbuss weapon and chasing a turkey that was called Peter Skilton (a take on the name of the manager of the then Plymouth Argyle manager, another former England legend Peter Shilton).
My ticking off was, understandably so, for enticing a threat of violence that was considered to be ‘well over the top’.
Anyway, at that time, football was very big on 0898 fund generating phone numbers, with the company who bossed that particular field at that time called Clubcall.
I came up with the idea of ‘The Grecian Grapevine’, our very own Exeter City phoneline that would carry all the club news.
Anyway, to promote the idea I asked Bally if he would be happy to be photographed effectively ‘munching’ on a bunch of grapes. He loved the idea!
Indeed, it led to him telling me of the time he had been playing in the USA and the marketing guy at the team he was with came up with the idea of the team coming out of the tunnel prior to a game all in coffins!
It seems that my own ‘thinking outside the box’ fell in sync with the ideas and thoughts of Alan Ball!
We became close in a working way and Alan and his wife Leslie would often invite me - a singleton at the time - over to their home in Mid Devon for a roast dinner.
One such day I had been invited over and the three of us were about to tuck into our lunch when the phone rang.
Leslie [Alan’s wife] went to answer it and she came swiftly back to say: “Alan, it’s the press association for you.”
Alan left the table, at which point Leslie turned to me and said very solemnly, “he’s not going to enjoy the next few minutes”.
It turns out that the Press Association were ringing to ask for Alan’s thoughts on the passing of Bobby Moore who of course, had captained England in that famous game back on July 30, 1966.
Alan returned from the phone call and took his seat back at the table, at which point he wiped a tear from his eye and said to me: “Birley Steve (that was how he used to address me as, standing at six foot five inches, I towered above a fairly diminutive Alan Ball), can you stick around son. I have got some tales to tell and, given the news I have just taken in, I could really do with doing nowt but talk football, football and more football.”
Lunch was followed by a switch to comfy chairs, a bottle - or two - of his favourite tipple, calvados, was put on the table and off he went.
It was an extraordinary few hours. Out came the World Cup winners medal, out came the Man of the Match award and on, and on, went the most wonderful football tales.
Alan told me all about 1966 and when that story was told he moved on to 1970 and the Bogotá Bracelet incident that led to Bobby Moore being wrongly accused of theft. He spoke of his time at Everton and Arsenal as a player and plenty more about England.
It was certainly the sort of ‘lengthy chat’ that any football supporter would have loved being party to!
That was not to be the last of many such lengthy ‘let’s talk football’ occasions I had in the company of Alan Ball.
I recall an Exeter City away game at Huddersfield Town.
The game was played on Saturday, September 11, 1993 and I was in Yorkshire with the team and post-match I was in the Leeds Road ground when a message was passed to me that the manager wanted to see me and was in the dressing room.
So down I went and, when I walked in the away dressing room, Alan was sat with Frank Worthington beside him. Bally looked up on my entrance and said: “Here he is Frank, another total football nut case” - that was how the great Alan Ball described me to Frank Worthington!
Bally reckoned I’d enjoy sitting on the bench in the away dressing room at Huddersfield Town with a football legend, chatting away and enjoying a glass - or two - of whisky. Again, it was a very special next 30 minutes talking football.
A similar thing happened at an away game at Oldham Athletic where I was summoned to the home managerial office post-match where I sat for a couple of hours with Oldham boss Joe Royle and Bally reminiscing about their time together at Everton.
‘Bally’ was certainly a character and one who was happy to lend his name to any event that helped people.
One such event was Charity Camel Racing that was held in Exeter on land that is now a housing estate.
I recall, prior to arriving at the venue, him saying: “Now then son, I can tell you I have lost more than a few quid on the nags over the years, so a spot of camel racing is very different”.
Another occasion that comes to mind was an FA Cup tie between Exeter City and Aston Villa, when we had a lot of folk booked in for hospitality packages and yours truly came up with the idea of each table having bottles of Grecian plonk which we called ‘Grecian Goddess’.
It was Alan who came up with the idea of getting the labels of a number of bottles signed by both him and Villa manager Ron Atkinson.
Of course, as a Man United fanatic, Bally knew just how much I’d enjoy meeting a former United manager and so he set up a mid-evening chat at the Villa hotel with ‘Big Ron’, Alan Ball, and me, and I took along a couple of cases of wine for the two managers to sign.
The way I was introduced to the Villa boss by Alan Ball on that occasion was: “Ron, meet arguably Manchester United’s biggest fan”. Yes, that was another wonderful evening of footballing tales. The less said about the game the better!
Villa won 1-0 thanks to a Dean Saunders penalty, awarded after the international fell dramatically under a challenge from the unfortunate Peter Whiston. Post-match even ‘Big Ron’ conceded that we (Exeter City) had deserved a replay.
There was also the time that after a Saturday game, Bally came up to me and said: “Birley Steve, what are you up to tomorrow lad?” and followed that with, want to meet another football legend? Hmmm, let me think about that for part of one second!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the next day I travelled with Bally to North Devon to join him and former Glasgow Rangers and Scotland manager Jock Wallace on the golf course. The Scotsman was terribly afflicted by Parkinson’s - sadly it led to his death in 1996 – but, despite clearly battling the dreadful illness, my word, could he spank the ball a long way off the tee!
‘Bally’ was no mean golfer either, playing off a single figure handicap and what a day of football tales that turned out to be.
I was not a golfer, but my head acted like the proverbial sponge during those 18 holes as I walked round the course with two legends of the game listening to their tales from on - and off - the pitch!
There is one more ‘Bally moment’ I’d like to share. It’s now 1995 and I was at home in Bradninch, Mid Devon. It was a Saturday munch time and I had the TV on ready to watch the Calcutta Rugby match between Scotland and England.
The phone rang and my wife Donna took the call - she turned to me and said: “Steve, it’s Alan Ball!”
I was surprised as I knew he was now managing Manchester City and it was a matchday.
However, ‘Bally’ was calling me from his hotel room and his opening line was: “Birley Steve, I am sat here in my hotel room watching the TV and it’s all about the Calcutta Cup and the passion shown by supporters for the occasion. It made me think of you so I picked the phone up to see how you are as I know you also have a similar passion - albeit for our wonderful game of football.”
Yes, I seemed to strike a chord with a certain Alan Ball and I can say with absolute confidence that a World Cup winner called me his friend.
On July 30, 2020, I shall raise a glass to that 1966 World Cup success and the time I spent in the company of Alan Ball, a World Cup winner 54 years ago to the day!
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