Kevin Ball has been doing a lot of spying recently.
If David Moyes has had to quickly get to know the Manchester United squad he inherited this summer, his opposite number this evening has had it much tougher.
Moyes has had since July to learn the foibles of a squad of household names who had been playing down the road from him for ages. The only addition has been Marouane Fellaini, a player he worked with for five years at Everton.
Since being named Sunderland’s caretaker manager Ball has had a fortnight to get under the skin of players he previously used to bump into down the corridors of the Academy of Light, but in some cases not much more.
The Black Cats made 14 summer signings, many not fluent in English, most of whom Ball probably knew little or nothing about before they arrived.
Little wonder the teams for his first two games have leaned heavily on survivors of Paolo Di Canio’s doomed revolution.
“When we saw the new players come in, it is really interesting how many of them do make the point of coming and speaking, and saying hello and shake your hand,” says Ball, who takes the reins again for tonight’s televised visit of Moyes’ Red Devils.
“You get to see the ones who are maybe a little bit introvert or a bit extrovert. You get to see all of that just by walking about the place.
“We spent quite a bit of time last week when we were training, not saying a great deal but just watching to see how they interacted – whether it be with their team-mates directly or indirectly – how they found the session, did they look really involved in it, were they committed or just going through the motions?
“We looked at all of that on a technical and a tactical side. We didn’t just say ‘Ha’way lads, we’re putting a training session on’, we watched it closely. We needed to know they were enjoying the session.”
So Ball parked himself on a grassy bank at the end of Thursday’s training to watch Emanuele Giaccherini, or “Jackie” as he affectionately calls him. “They were practising free-kicks,” Ball says. “It was interesting. I stood on the bank and you saw him concentrating. There were four of five of them practising. It was really interesting and I enjoyed it.
“You could see that when he did score one right at the end, there was a little bet on about who was going to buy dinner, and the excitement on his face was fantastic. It is important you have players like that because his enthusiasm rubs off on others. Seb Larsson was there too, Jozy Altidore, Vito (Mannone) was in goal. They set a wall up and it was really interesting to watch.”
Giaccherini, the little Italian magician who operated in the hole for Juventus, is close to the exact opposite in playing style to Ball, the uncompromising central defender who became a midfield enforcer. Opposites attract. “Jackie epitomises what I like in a player,” says Ball.
“He has non-stop energy, he wants to work, he has great quality as well. He is very willing to learn English, he wants to understand what he is doing. Sometimes he needs a bit of help with translation and we are lucky that we have lads that can do that, but I think he has been brilliant.
“His enthusiasm for the game has been fabulous. You would expect that but it is great to see. I would imagine from Jackie’s point of view, he probably saw it (joining Sunderland) as an extension to his career in a sense of wanting to go to another country and experiencing what it is like. I think it is great to see.”
Wherever they come from, Ball needs leaders at the moment.
Moyes may think he has it tough, presiding over the Red Devils’ worst start to a league season in 24 years, but lose this evening and it will be Sunderland’s worst start to a Premier League season. Whoever gets the manager’s job permanently – and Ball is hoping that becomes clear during the next fortnight – will have to rely on strong dressing-room characters.
“You either go under or you fight harder,” says Ball, whose last caretaker spell ended in a relegation he was never likely to be able to stave off. “It is important they keep their focus on that. We need to keep things in perspective and keep things real.”
He is fortunate to have two starkly contrasting captains after Lee Cattermole’s return to the fold. Outstanding against Liverpool last week, his performance made a mockery of Di Canio’s attempt to force him out of the club, handing the captain’s armband to John O’Shea.
“What you see with John is a level head and a calming influence,” reflects Ball. “What you see from Lee is a bit more of the fist-pumping. You get led by the way he is.
“I look back on my career, and I like him. I like players that do both. I like players that are calming someone. We played at Newcastle and I accidentally hit the crossbar from 45 yards, I was in a flap then. Chris Makin shouted out, ‘Bally, Bally!’
“I’ve looked round imaging he was going to give me it. And he just said, ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!’
“It instantly calmed me down. Makin was a leader, an unsung hero. So there are different ways of doing it. We are fortunate we have John for the way he is, and we are very fortunate we have Lee for the way he is.”