Legends - Allan Ball

Allan Ball has played more games for Queen of the South than any other player in the club’s history. In a career at Queens lasting from the early 60s to the early 80s, Ball played in goals for Queens’ first team on 819 occasions (731 games were league and cup, the rest were challenge games and testimonials). As well as being a key member of the promotion-winning team of 1981, Ball also enjoyed many great personal moments in a career with Queens that continued well beyond the day he hung up his gloves.

Allan Ball contributed to this article with an interview in December 2008.

 

Early years

Allan Ball is from Hetton-le-hole in County Durham, a place described simply by Ball as, “A mining village”. His life in football didn’t start as a goalkeeper. As Ball says himself:-

“I started out as an inside forward, playing at school and gaining representative honours. I actually went in goal when Jimmy Montgomery who played for Sunderland got hurt and I went and played in goal instead of him. When I went back to school they said, ‘Well that’s where you are playing from now on’. I was signed with Burnley at the time as an inside forward as a school boy, but, I’ve never regretted it, it was a tremendous transformation. Jimmy didn’t get back in the team after that but to be fair his arm was injured so I suppose if he had been fit it would never have happened, so he did me a good turn”.

Jimmy Montgomery went on to give a memorable performance in keeping out Don Revie’s Leeds when Sunderland won the 1973 FA Cup final. Dick Malone, later of QoS, played beside him in the ’73 final. Ball recalled of the others he played with as a County Durham schoolboy:-

“Ralphy Coates went and played for Tottenham and England. Ralphy and I went to school together. There was a lad called John Sproates who played for Sunderland as well. A lot of players that were fantastic at 15 year old, they disappeared. There’s only 1 or 2 out of the team that continued to play. They were all signed by league teams but there’s not a lot made the grade unfortunately.

On himself, Ball articulated the next step in his career.

“I was playing at Blackpool at the time as a boy. I was offered a contract there. When the contract came to fruition it wasn’t what they said it was so I actually walked away from Blackpool. They said I couldn’t play for another English team because they held my registration.”

“Queen of the South came in and I didn’t even know where they were, I didn’t even know where Queen of the South was. I signed for them when I was still working at the pit. I was electrician to trade but we were working on the coal face because we had to maintain the machinery. It was hard work. Now you hear about footballers being tired; I used to work a shift, not just myself, a lot more players, started at 11 o’clock at night and finish at 7 o’clock in the morning, go to bed for a few hours and go then go and play football. Never once did I feel tired, you only get out of it what you put in to it.”

Queen of the South

“Willie Harkness and his brother Sam and a scout called John Carruthers from Carlisle [the place, not the team] signed me at the Pit Head at 2 o’clock in the morning. I was working at the pit and they came and they signed me in the canteen over a roll.”

Joining in season 1963/64, Ball’s first manager at Queens was ex Scotland international George Farm, a player for who Ball clearly had a great deal of respect.

“Player, manager and goalkeeper, I liked Mr Farm as I used to call him but I’ll never forget the day I met him. He met me at the railway station when I got off the train and we were walking down towards the Cairndale. He said, ‘Well I hear you’re a good goalkeeper but let me just tell you right now; I’m the number one keeper here and that’s the way I intend keeping it’. I played on the Saturday and we got beat 6-3 but believe it or not with that score-line I played well.” Ball then joked briefly, “You try and tell that to anybody who let six goals in”. Ball then gave more detail on the circumstances of that debut against Falkirk on 14 December 1963. “I played ever since. They day I arrived I played against Falkirk. He left himself out or whether he was told to leave himself out I don’t know. He was good to me, he was just a one off, George Farm. You either liked him or you hated him, I liked him because he talked to me a lot, told me a lot and I think I learned a few things from him.”

If the result on Ball’s debut wasn’t what he had hoped for, two weeks later was the small matter of an away league match against Celtic. Ball though again earned praise for his endeavours despite a 2-0 win for the homesters.

Ball commented:-

“When you are playing against good teams and you are under pressure then the goalie should have the opportunity to shine. I enjoyed playing against big teams. The fans were good to me, if you played well they applauded you and if you made boobs, they let you know about it. I can’t understand people playing in front of big crowds and they can’t enjoy themselves. I’ve been in dressing rooms and some of the players are freezing before they went out, actually froze. I used to love it, the bigger the crowd the better it was.”

From the team that Ball played beside in Scotland’s top division he mentioned Ernie Hannigan (“Fantastic player”) and said of the team in general, “Queen of the South had a good team considering we were part timers. But unfortunately we weren’t good enough and we went down at the end of the season to the old second division.”

Queens challenged for promotion in the first two seasons outside the top flight, missing out on promotion by one place each time, finishing third. Ball remembered, philosophically and candidly, “We lost games that we should never have lost and we won games we should never have won. Unfortunately for us we were just pipped both times. We had been promised that if we got back into the big league we would go full time. This was obviously my ambition and a lot more of the players but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. We were unlucky if you want to put it that way but at the same time if you don’t score goals, you don’t win games. Simple as that”

Ball remembered his team mates from the sixties with affection. “Billy Collings, my best mate to this day, Bill was a different class. He was a great old style right half if you want to call it that. He had a lot of brains and a lot of flair, he was a fantastic player. Arnold Coates, a centre forward from the North East of England, he was another good player. The Law brothers, Jackie and Lex who came a couple of years later, and Iain McChesney. But the best of the lot was a lad called Michael Barker, a full back, another from the North East of England. He was different class, a fantastic player. Michael unfortunately broke his leg twice. He was one of these players who played better if he’d had a pint the night before, he would tell you this, he was a typical North East miner. He just loved his football and he was a natural player. But, unfortunately for Michael, he broke his leg twice.”

In 1969/70 Ball was part of a Queens side that narrowly missed out on promotion again with another third place finish. Ball commented on player turn over, again with happy memories. “In the early 70s, there was practically a complete turnaround, but they were all good teams. Somebody said to me about 4 or 5 weeks ago, ‘Pick a team, and I’ll let you pick yourself, from the 44 years you’ve been connected with the club and see what your best team is’. I picked 16 players and the only player from the last 20 years that was in the team was Andy Thomson. We had some fantastic players; Tommy O’Hara, Mike Jackson, George Dickson, Jimmy Robertson, Ian Reid, Peter Dickson, these were all fantastic players.”

Three of Ball’s most memorable performances came in cup games in season 1975/76. First was a League Cup quarter final game against Rangers with the first leg at Ibrox:-

“That was one of the highlights of my career. I played really, really well that night, but again we were under a lot pressure, so again the keeper does have the opportunity to shine if he can control his nerves. I was lucky, as soon as I touched the first ball, if I got it clean, I was OK, I didn’t have a problem. We were robbed that night for all we got beaten 1 – 0. We had a glaring penalty, I always remember Alex Miller pulled down Lex Law. It was a certain penalty, but the referee waved play on and they beat us 1 – 0. We played the 2nd leg a week later, two weeks later or whatever and it was a horrible, horrible night. We actually beat them 2-1 on the 90 minutes. We were the first team to beat them that season over 90 minutes. Unfortunately in extra time, wee Alex MacDonald - I won’t tell you what I called him - scored the winning goal. It didn’t even touch the back of the net, it just trundled over the line. It was a horrible, horrible night, conditions were heavy, it probably suited us. We had a lad then called Tommy Bryce, not the Tommy Bryce [Mk II], Tommy Bryce Mk I, left sided player, as hard as nails. He was crunching them, I don’t think Rangers’ players had ever seen anything like this fella, a good lad and a good player. I had the pleasure of his company eight weeks ago and he was also at the cup final. But the 70s game is a game we should have won really, but it was not to be.”

There was also the Scottish Cup tie against Ayr United:-

“I’ll never forget it; I played that first game up at Ayr. We were 2 – 0 down and I got an injury. I just thought it was a wee ankle strain. At half time we went off and Jimmy Anderson, the trainer, was taking my boot off to have a look at the ankle. The chairman was there and he said to the trainer, ‘What are you doing?’ and the trainer said, ‘I’m taking his boot off to take a look’. The chairman said, ‘Don’t take his boot off or you’ll not get it back on. He’ll not be able to go back out’. The doctor looked at it and he says, ‘I think it’s broken’. I said to them, ‘Just strap it up, just strap it up’, so they strapped it up. I got some pain killers and it was fine for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, then it started to wear off and I was hobbling about. We equalised, 2-2, then they got a penalty with eight minutes to go. I always remember Johnny Graham took the kick. Hobbling about, I could only go one way. I went to go left as if I was going to go that way and then I went right. It made it look a fantastic save, but I could only go right. Their player should have been flogged because if he put it left I just couldn’t put any weight on it. So we drew 2-2 and the replay we won 5-4. I was sitting in the dug-out with crutches. The game was the best I’ve ever watched except the Aberdeen semi final. 5-4 and we were never in front until we scored the winning goal, Peter Dickson, fantastic. Nine goals, end to end stuff, it was a fantastic game. People always talk about it at dinners, it was a fantastic occasion.

 

(Allan Ball receives a salver to commemorate 600 first team games for QoS)

Ball then gave his memories of the promotion season in 1980-81 when Queens were promoted into the middle of Scotland’s then three leagues:-

“That was drawing near to the end of my career. I was 39 then. I felt we were the best team in the league and I couldn’t see us not getting promoted. It was tight but eventually we secured promotion, it was a lovely feeling, it was really the first thing we’d won in my time. I played in a few reserve games where we won this and won that, the Wigtownshire Cup and all that but really, really, I was chuffed to bits with the promotion because I thought at least I’m going to go out with something. Jimmy Robertson, he was a fair player, they were all fairly good players, but Jimmy Robertson I think is probably one of the best left wingers we’ve had. I really rated him, fantastic player. Ches [Iain McChesney] to me is an unsung hero at Queen of the South. He played in every position apart from goalkeeper and if the manager had picked him to play in goal he would have played in goal, a fantastic lad. He’s still connected with the club, he goes and watches the team we’re playing the next week, he does all the analysis. A great, great Queens man. Ches looks as fit now at the ripe age of 63, 64, as he did back then. He still works, he still climbs up the floodlights and does them [McChesney as an electrician is employed to do so]. A fantastic club man, I don’t think there’s been any better.”

McChesney similarly holds in his ex-teammate in high regard. “Bally, one of the best keepers ever, one of the best keepers we ever had. The only thing was he always wanted to play outfield, he started off he played outfield”, laughed McChesney as he relayed the episode in Ball’s teens listed above that led to Ball becoming a goallie. McChesney then continued, “His handling was good, he was a good shot stopper, he had loads of confidence, that was the thing, plus he was good at communicating with his back four.”

During his career Allan Ball picked up a solitary booking when he was cautioned by referee Tiny Wharton for incredulously of all reasons - blaspheming in a game at Christmas.

Ball was awarded 2 testimonials in recognition of his long service to Queens:-

“The first one was against Carlisle, it was great, I thought thanks very much to the club. I’d never have thought for one moment I’d still be playing another 10 years later. Then for the second one, it was against Man City. It was originally going to be Celtic. Billy McNeil and I are very good friends, we spoke and he said he’d bring a Celtic team down but he moved to Man City. I spoke to him and he said, ‘As soon as the fixtures come out and we play Newcastle on the Saturday, we’ll come up and stay the Saturday night and play the testimonial on the Sunday’, and it happened in the September. It was a fantastic occasion but it was a hell of a day for me to cope with because it was really the end for me."

(Allan Ball at his second testimonial game. Back row - Muir, Cloy, McMinn, Davidson, Cochrane, Parker, Hamilton, G Robertson.

Front row - Cooper [Rangers], MacKay [Hearts], Alexander [St Mirren], McGrain [Celtic], Clark, McChesney.)

"The first half I played in it, I knew it was the end - the balls were flying like bullets and the reactions just weren’t there. It was a fantastic feeling though, there were some great players there. Danny McGrain who is still a good friend, and the Tin Man. Danny McGrain made Ted McMinn that day, telling him what to do. And a few weeks later Ted signed for Rangers and went on to do very, very well.” Others guesting for Queens that day were Davie Cooper of Rangers, Gary Mackay of Hearts and Ball’s ex Queens team mate Rowan Alexander, then of Morton."

Later playing career

I went down to Gretna. I was actually going to sign for Bishop Auckland in the Northern League, one of my first teams 20 odd years before that. I actually went down and played for Bishop in a pre season friendly against Gretna. I basically agreed I would sign for Bishop. The next morning the phone rings and it was the chairman of Gretna, Keith Rhodes, who I’d never heard of. He said, ‘Can we come and speak to you?’ I said out of courtesy, ‘Yeah but I’ve got a contract in my pocket to sign.’ Anyway, he came over and he just blew me away. At my age 40, coming 41 they offered me a fantastic deal and it was handier for home and I signed for them.

The second game of the season was Bishop Auckland away and we beat them 1-0, again under pressure. I had a good game and I was quite chuffed. My family wasn’t too keen because they would have seen me more if I was down there playing for Bishop, I would have been down there practically every second week but I never regret going to Gretna, it was a good little club. I was there a season and a half. I always said I would pack in football when I didn’t enjoy training.

The Northern League was a lot harder than the Scottish League for rough and tumble. I was getting knocks on the Saturday and it was taking me to Thursday to recover, I was 42. I remember coming in saying to the wife one night, ‘Been down at Gretna for training and I’d done very little cause the thighs were sore, everything was sore, getting treatment. I’m going to pack in because I said when I don’t enjoy training I would give it up and right now I can’t train.’ I’d gone 4 weeks and played, but basically never trained. As a goalkeeper I wasn’t even getting 20 minutes non-stop training work because I couldn’t cope with it. I said to Gordon the manager, ‘Try and get another keeper’. He said, ‘Ah, you’re doing great’. I said, ‘I’m not doing myself any justice, I can hardly walk on Sundays, this, that and the other’. I played for another four or five games until they got somebody else. I played a couple of times more for them later when they had problems. At the finish up I played for Dalbeattie Star for two or three games when I helped out Dick Shaw, and that was it.”

Ball’s passion for football as well as his humour came through in his next comments:-

“I still miss it. I still sit in the stand thinking I’m the best goalkeeper. In fact I’m the best centre forward. It never dies away from you. I still think I can play but at 65 it’s not the case now.

Honorary director

On 11th December 2001 Ronnie Bradford and his board announced the following:-

"Last night Queen of the South created a new position when former goalkeeper Allan Ball was made Honorary Director”.

Ball said:-

“That was a very proud day for me. Queen of the South has been my life. I’ve probably thought more of Queen of the South at times than I should have done. When I’ve put Queen of the South first, my wife has backed me 100%. It was a fantastic feeling and I loved it and I still love it. I do whatever they ask me to do within reason. I was chuffed to bits to be honest, chuffed to bits.”

 

With his new role at Queens, Ball has been able to enjoy more great days with the club:-

“I remember going to Forfar for the winning game of the Second Division in 2002, that was fantastic, that was a highlight of my whole time with Queens, watching them win the division, something I never achieved, even though I played in the ’81 promotion team. It was nice to get back up a division. And the Challenge Cup Final [in autumn of the same calendar year].

“Then of course the last eight months, nine months. When we played Dundee in the quarter final of the Cup at Palmerston, a full house, and beat them 2-0. I thought that’s it, we won’t repeat that. Then we were drawn against Aberdeen in the semi final at Hampden. The town was going mental. We went up there, we sold out 9500 tickets, and of course the result, winning 4-3, I’ll be honest with you, I thought I was having a heart attack when the assistant put up 4 minutes injury time, I thought I can’t believe this, but we went on to win 4-3.

That was really every body thinking that was our cup final. Playing Rangers in the final, to be fair I don’t think we turned up in the first half. Rangers were complaining about playing too many games, we hadn’t played for four weeks and I think we lacked a little bit. But when we come out in the second half, and 15 minutes later 2-2, I thought we were going to go on and win, I really did.

I spoke with Walter Smith after the game and he said, ‘The last thing I said to my players at half time, “go out, weather the storm for the first 15 or 20 minutes because they’ll come at you, and you’ll go on and win by 5 or 6.“’ He then said to me, ‘At 2-2 I really thought that we would get beat, you deserved something out of the game. Our supporters, Rangers supporters, applauded you throughout the game and at the end of the game and you don’t often see that. Fantastic. As a Queen of the South man you should be proud of yourself’, which I am”.

“My wife and I went to Denmark for the UEFA Cup game. It’ll be a common affair for some clubs, but to us, and to take 900 people there, supporters, and not one ounce of bother, the police there thought it was fantastic. We were all based in a pub called the Dubliner, I was there, ‘PRing’ if you want to put it that way, the police would appear, [there was] no bother, and it was great. We lost our chance up at Airdrie in the first game when we got beat 2-1. But we scored in the first few minutes over in Denmark, we could have been three up at half time. We only got beat 2-1 because in the last 15 minutes we had to go for it. We could have won 1-0 but it wouldn’t have meant anything, we still would have been out. They got 2 goals when we had to throw everything into attack. But it was a fantastic occasion; it must be a lovely, lovely feeling to look forward to something like that again.”

Going back to the conversion from inside forward to goalie, Ball remarked, “I never regretted it. It’s coming up to 45 years to be connected with the club, I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”

 

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