Former Everton winger Ronny Goodlass wouldn’t accept the old adage that you should never meet your heroes.
The 62-year-old scouser came through the ranks with the Toffees when they were a powerhouse in English football, boasting some of the finest players in the club’s and the English game’s history. And as was customary for young men during those days, they were each assigned to clean the boots of a senior professional; Ronny was paired with the great Alan Ball.
The Lancashire lad was already a World Cup winner with England by that point, having turned in a Man of the Match display in the 1966 final, and one of the very best players in the world. Ronny had the distinct pleasure of seeing him first hand on a day-to-day basis and ultimately striking up a lasting friendship with one of Everton’s all-time greats.
Ball left a lasting impression on Goodlass. His charity, Health Through Sport, have an annual Ball of Fire Award, distributed to a person that’s shown outstanding application and dedication in the local community. Ronny will also be featuring in an on-stage production also dubbed Ball of Fire, documenting the player’s remarkable rise.
On the cusp of this production getting started, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Goodlass, who shared some insight into a footballer supreme and discussed Ball’s legacy, which still thrives nine years on from his sad passing and half a century on from his greatest triumph.
MJ: First of all, can you tell us a little more about your charity, “Health Through Sport, and what it involves?
RG: The charity started off in 2005 and it’s aim was to help vulnerable and disadvantaged kids. But because it snowballed a little bit we now go right across the board—special needs, to ex-drug users, ex-alcoholics and ex-offenders.
We also help members get their Level 1 and Level 2 awards in football coaching. It’s great to come along and enjoy yourself. The end result should be that you’re mixing with people, you’re putting something back into the community and you can get a qualification. And you’re not isolated.
Some people are a bit lonely, a bit vulnerable so we try to get them involved. It’s like your community. You want everyone to mix in and contribute.
MJ: Can you tell us about the production Ball of Fire that you’ll be involved in in Liverpool? What is your role?
RG: I’ll be the narrator and on stage, believe it or not. It’ll be as if I’m a radio commentator and you wonder where they got that idea from! (Ronny has been a colour analyst on BBC Radio Merseyside for 20 years). I’ll be wearing a sheepskin coat as well, so it’ll be back to the 1970s!
It’s to educate the younger element who have heard of Alan Ball but they didn’t see him play. We’ll have stills of him, explaining when he first started out his trials at Blackpool, taking him right through until when got the move to Everton and then his England days.
It’ll show Alan Ball the way he really was. He did a lot for charity himself and I think he’ll be delighted with the work I’m doing. He would have backed us all the way.
MJ: A lot our readers would have been too young to see him play in the flesh, but can you describe what kind of player Ball was?
RG: He had everything about him. Especially in the England game, in the 1966 World Cup final; I’d ask anybody from any age group to go back and watch it. He was unbelievable. To get voted Man of the Match after Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick showed how good he was.
But it’s the way he conducted himself, he made the most of his ability. Even in training he wanted to be the best; I think he’d run over his own granny to get the ball! He was immaculate and epitomised everything you would want to see in a footballer.
He wasn’t the biggest, but he’d fight for every ball. He’d occasionally get on the wrong side of referees too, with red and yellow cards. But that was because of the passion and the will to win he had.
Bally also made other players play. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that if you ask any Everton player that was a team-mate of his—Howard Kendall, Joe Royle or Colin Harvey— “who is the best player you’ve played with?” they’d all say Alan Ball.
MJ: Would you say the fire you mentioned was the attribute that made Ball such a special player?
RG: He was the best one-touch player I’ve ever seen. You see the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, but he was as good. (MJ: So he was a brilliant technician too?)… Oh yeah, he’d see maybe two or three moves ahead. But instead of taking a lot of touches like other players would do, he’d take the ball in then it’d be gone. I’d pay my £35 ticket just to watch that!
Even if he wasn’t playing well he’d still want the ball, he’d still say to other players that had been quiet “come on, what’s going on?” He just kept everyone on their toes, but because he set the bar high, everyone has to get up to the bar with him, or weren’t going to get in the team.
He set an example too. I’d come to Everton after playing for England schoolboys, but seeing Bally in training, it made me realise how to do things if I wanted to make it to the very top. A lot kids don’t pick the right players to be their role model, but in Bally I certainly picked the right one.
MJ: A unique player, then?
RG: Definitely. I think it says it all that he could fire other high-profile players up. If you can fire your Harvey’s, Kendall’s, Royle’s, Johnny Morrissey’s up you must be doing something right!
MJ: It’s 50 years now since England beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. Do you have vivid memories of that match?
RG: I do, I really do. It was a thing with cup finals, especially FA Cup finals, that everyone would sit together in front of the television. The World Cup was that multiplied by nearly 1,000.
Then once it’s played and Germany get a late goal to take it to extra-time you think “here we go.” Then the excitement and drama of whether the ball crossed the line and then the fourth goal at the end… I don’t think you can write that script.
MJ: And what was so good about Alan Ball’s performance that day?
RG: He never stopped. I remember [Karl-Heinz] Schnellinger, the best left-back around at that time, being led a merry dance. And he actually came out afterwards and said “this player is fantastic.” If you’re world-class in any position, it says a lot to say that about you’re direct opponent!
It set a precedent for everybody in the team; “if you want this, you’ve got to work as hard as I have.” It was perpetual motion for me, box-to-box. That first time touch, the pace of his pass, you can go on and on. It brings a smile to my face even saying Alan Ball’s name.
MJ: Fans get very excited about new signings in the modern game. Do you remember being excited when Alan Ball signed for Everton after the World Cup?
RG: Well Everton had a good side at the time. In 1962-63 we won the league, then the FA Cup in 1966. And you’re then watching a World Cup player, winning a medal, who comes to join. It’s like the icing on the cake.
Everton have a brand of football fashioned over the club’s existence; playing effective attacking football with two wingers, centre-forwards, good on the eye. Bally fitted in perfectly and having two world-class players (Ray Wilson was part of the England)… does it get much better than that?
Just received this from our patron David France from sunny Arizona,Labby And Bally with league. pic.twitter.com/9fjtooGmmX
— Ronny (@HealththruSport) June 1, 2016
Then Everton won the title in 1969-70 title with one of the best teams I’ve ever seen, including the 1985 outfit. I’d put us against anyone. All internationals and brilliant to watch.
MJ: Do you remember your first interaction with Alan Ball?
RG: I remember coming in on my first day with Mick Buckley in the morning and you got given jobs, whether it was the reserve team dressing room, cleaning showers, toilets—it was all part of the apprenticeship. But because we were England schoolboys we got the first-team dressing room.
Then Brian Labone introduced us to the players and I looked to my right and you’ve got Alan Ball there. “Hello son,” he said. I turned around thinking he was talking to somebody else! And from that day he’d always ask how things were going in the B team. He’d ask how we’d got on at the weekend and I’d talk to him for hours! From that first day, I knew he was the one to follow.
He often sat behind me during radio broadcasts for Radio Solent too and signed shirts for my kids. And he used to always say “how is my team [Everton] doing? I’ll see you at Goodison”
MJ: And you had to look after the famous white boots too!?
RG: Well he first got them when he got the contract with Hummel. He hated them, by the way! I used to have to wear them and break them in. It meant I got all the blisters, was walking like John Wayne for a week and then handed them back to him.
Broke these in for Bally (and cleaned them)I had all the blisters but I didn’t mind it was Bally pic.twitter.com/JBtdh938fB
— Ronny (@HealththruSport) June 2, 2016
Because of who he was you didn’t mind it. It was part of being an apprentice and the two years you had to undertake before being a professional. That’s something the academies have lost with this European ruling that you have to learn football; you need to learn life skills by doing those things, starting at the bottom.
Those two years, when you’re doing whatever… we used to have to do the wheelbarrows, sieving soil for the A team and the B team pitch! It won’t help you chip a ball or cross a ball but it’s being part of a team and it gets you grounded.
MJ: Finally, what was he like off the pitch? A big character?
RG: Absolutely fantastic. I used to have him help with the charities and we had Bally on one of the after-dinner speeches and about 400 people turned up. The MC gets up to bring Alan Ball on stage, who then gets hold of the microphone, stands on a chair and says “my name is Alan Ball.” That’s all he said, and he must have got a standing ovation for 10 minutes!
Then I told him to sit down and he said to me “not bad this Ronny, is it?” And then there was another roar!
He was respected so much, the best after-dinner speaker I’ve ever heard. That passion was still there and that’s what supporters, especially the ones that seen him play, respected him for. And when he spoke, you listened.
— Matt Jones (@MattJFootball) June 3, 2016
For more information about the Ball of Fire production, including dates, ticket prices and venues, click HERE. E-mail Kenny.OConnell@btopenworld.com for more information.