Kevin Ball getting Sunderland back on an even keel

Four years ago a beach ball proved the difference between Sunderland and Liverpool. Tomorrow, they are hoping Kevin Ball can do the same

Richard Sellers/Getty Images Kevin Ball, Sunderland's caretaker manager
Kevin Ball, Sunderland's caretaker manager

The caretaker manager is getting the Black Cats back on an even keel in the wake of Paolo Di Canio’s tumultuous tenure and, for all he was at pains not to criticise the former boss, the whole mood of the place was different.

Beginning yesterday’s pre-match press call by fining himself for being eight minutes late and spending the same amount of time shaking the hand of every journalist in the room, he attacked half-an-hour’s worth of questions in the same manner he would a midfield 50-50.

Tomorrow’s visit of Liverpool played second fiddle to discussion over the management vacancy, although Ball hit back at suggestions Sunderland’s impending run of home games offers them the footballing equivalent of a free hit.

“Roy Keane would have got up and punched you in the face for suggesting that,” joked the 48-year-old, who expects John O’Shea to have recovered from a niggle.

Steven Fletcher is a further four to six weeks away, while Lee Cattermole’s “absolutely fabulous” return against Peterborough could put him in with a chance.

Clearly relishing the caretaker role, even an afternoon on media duty could not dissuade the stand-in from his stated desire to assume the role on a more permanent basis.

He said: “I have no doubt that if I did stay in the job it would be great with the press one week and wanting to have a pop at each other the next, but that is just life and you accept it.”

Similarly pragmatic was his stance on ketchup – an erroneous symbol of the Di Canio regime according to Ball, having supposedly been pulled from the players’ canteen.

“I’ll be honest – I wasn’t aware that anything like that was banned,” he said, getting to the source – or sauce – of the matter. “In terms of condiments, that is something that has always been available to the players. I am not now saying ‘ha’way lads, let’s get ourselves a bucket of tomato ketchup.’ Most of them don’t use it anyway. It is up to them, they are individuals.

“I respect Paolo because he did things his way, but in terms of whether or not coffee or sauce is banned – if they want it and it is appropriate, then they’re going to have it. They will be treated like men.”

Mobile phones, similarly, Ball explaining: “They are a fantastic tool, but can also have an adverse effect if you get a call a minute before training that upsets your mind-set. From that point of view the things Paolo was doing were no different to what we already had in place.

“The players could use them in the players’ lounge, and not in other areas. It is no different now, and players have got to focus on training. They have agreed to it, and there is no problem.

“Look. The players are professional, and disciplined. We work hard, and will not tolerate things we feel are unacceptable. That said, we absolutely will enjoy a laugh and a joke, when the time is right.

“If one of the staff falls arse-over-tit on the training field, are we all meant to sit there with a straight face, looking at our feet?

“On the same note, if someone was not doing something correctly then I would want to speak to them about it.

“Training is there for a reason, not to mess about, but there is a place for that laughter when it is appropriate.”

It was all good stuff, precisely the kind of earthy philosophy one would expect from a man’s man like Ball, who went on to explain why every player should carry round with them a little book about the club – a Black Cats’ bible, if you will.

“One of the things I do think is important is for the players to know the history of the club, what it is about and what is expected of them,” he explained.

“You can’t just bring a player in and say ‘welcome to the club’. They should probably be given a book to say this is Sunderland, here is our coat of arms and this is what it means.

“Here are the people of Sunderland and here are your supporters, who expect 100% effort 100% of the time.

“With me as a manager or coach, that would be part of the role. Ultimately it would be up to the players whether or not they take that on board, but I think every club should have something like that.

“You would like to think the pride is there, but the responsibility always has to lie with the players. We can help them and facilitate things, but it must come from them.

“Obviously I would drive it on to them, but I would do it in such a way that they would understand why we were doing it.”

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