By David Evans
Goalkeeper - 48 appearances 1958-1962
Goalkeeper Keith Ball is one of the small band of players to have had 3 separate spells on the books of Walsall FC. This journey took him around 15 years but his connections with The Saddlers started long before his first spell.
“I’ve been a life long fan. As a small boy attending games at Fellows Park I remember only too well being passed down through the crowd to the front of the terraces to get a better view from just behind the old rickety perimeter fence. We played in claret and blue then.”
When asked why he became a goalkeeper he replied,
“I had no real ambition to play in goal, in fact I played as an outside left for my youth club. “
Keith was not tall for a glovesman but his agility and positional play caught the eye of scouts and he joined Walsall straight from school around Christmas time in 1955 under the watchful eye of Peter Mc Sevitch, who had a number of roles at Fellows Park. Keith was later taken on as a full professional and made his debut on 17th March, 1959. He also played in two more games before the end of that season, deputising for John Savage.
1959-60 was that fantastic promotion season where The Saddlers went up as 4th Division champions under Bill Moore. John Christie was now the No1 keeper however there was 3 more appearances for Keith, a 3-1 win at Doncaster and the last two games of that memorable season, a 2-0 win at Aldershot and a 2-2 draw at Watford before a crowd of 20,734. Due to the form of Christie there wasn’t a game at all for Keith in 1960-61 and when asked if it was frustrating to have such limited chances at this time Keith observed,
” It was, but my determination to keep going and be ready for another opportunity spurred me on.”
With Walsall reaching the dizzy heights of the old Second Division for 1961-62, there was a good spell of action for Keith in September and October. A home draw against Swansea was followed by a 2-5 reverse at Sunderland in the Football League Cup. Next up came a welcome 5-0 win over Rotherham before an exciting trip to Liverpool in mid October. Keith showed me an interesting book written by Tony Davis titled ‘In The Saddle For The Saddlers’ based on Walsall’s first ever league game at Anfield with the writer and his friend cycling to the game as schoolboys aged 15 and 16.
Keith is very proud of this book and wrote a forward in it and explained,
” Tony has always kept in touch since writing the book with visits to my house and Christmas cards etc and this, along with people like Geoff Allman and more recently the Trust’s Steve Davies with his fine work for the Former Players Association which helps to bring back some wonderful memories from my days as a professional footballer.”
As expected Saddlers lost that game heavily, a 1-6 hiding. The following week he figured in a 2-2 home draw to Charlton and there was one more game – a 1-2 reverse at Bury – which turned out to be his last game in his first spell. So after a dozen first team appearances and the rise of Alan Boswell, who was four years younger than Keith, Bill Moore decided to release him. He was soon snapped up by Southern League Worcester City and commented,
” I was signed by Bill Jones and I enjoyed three great years at St George’s Lane, playing along side some household names like Peter Mc Parland and Norman Deeley.”
Then in 1965 came a welcome move ‘back home’ to Fellows Park. Ray Shaw had no hesitation to pay £1,500 to Worcester for his services again. Due to the form of Terry Carling there wasn’t a single first team appearance in that 1965-6 season and it was something of a disappointment for Keith to learn the club paid £15,000 for experienced Bob Wesson in October,1966, from Coventry City. However there was better news on the horizon as in December Carling left for Chester and there was an opportunity of 15 games for him in the final third of that 1966-7 season.
The start of the 1967-8 campaign continued in good fashion as it saw Keith play in the first 20 games which coincided with the team reaching the top of the table. Following a 4-2 win over Shrewsbury Town in the Football League Cup, Saddlers were drawn at home to West Ham United in Round Two. Keith has a framed picture in his house from that game which shows him bravely diving to thwart Bobby Moore. He purred,
” It was a real pleasure to play against our world cup heroes that night of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters.”
Late goals gave The Hammers a somewhat flattering score line of 5-1 but Keith had played his part with some fine saves. Despite that cup exit the league form went from strength to strength and his run of games included a sequence of 9 wins from 12 games. However Wesson regained the jersey in the November and Keith’s second spell was destined to end as he only played one more game – at Northampton on 9th March 1968. With Wesson and a fast emerging young Phil Parkes also around it was another frustrating time and then came a move to Fourth Division Port Vale in November. Gordon Lee paid a small fee for his services and it was a welcome chance for Keith to be playing regular first team football at 28.
As for his thoughts on his time at Vale Park Keith explained,
” I enjoyed my time with Port Vale and there were plenty of familiar faces around in dressing rooms with the likes of Roy Cross, Bobby Gough and Brian Horton from my time at Walsall.”
That first season at Vale saw him figure in 28 league and cup games . He was ever present in 1969 -70 with 52 apps and his sparkling form between the posts helped them win promotion. There was 30 games in 1970-71 and 35 in 1971-2 but was released by Gordon Lee that summer.
He dropped into non-league with Stourbridge and was employed outside of football in the week when a call came out of the blue from Walsall manager John Smith to make a shock return. 1972-3 was the season of seven keepers for Walsall thanks to injuries to Bob Wesson however this came with its disappointment as Keith pointed out,
” I had the impression I was returning for a decent stint, to the end of the season maybe but its a good job I didn’t put in my notice with my day job as chairman Ron Harrison later phoned to say it was just for a month!”
He played in 2 of the 3 league games in November 1972, away at Southend and at home to Watford. Keith went on to play for a few non-league clubs. At Darlaston he played for former team mate Granville Palin and alongside Alec Jackson. He said his time at Nuneaton wasn’t a happy one but he enjoyed his time at Kidderminster playing under former team mate Stan Jones. There was also a spell at Rushall Olympic. He played in charity games up to 1987 and said,
“I wanted to play until I was 50 but fell just short of that. I recall one such game where it was me in goal for the first half and Gordon Banks replaced me for the second half. Bobby Charlton also played in that game.”
He had a few injuries in his career but none more so than this one,
“I damaged my cartilage on the team coach on the way down to Bournemouth. I must be the only football ever to do so!”
His goalkeeping hero is Bert Williams, who made 25 appearances for Walsall before his switch to Wolves and said he felt honoured to chat to him on Former Players Days.
Keith’s other love is playing golf which he has recently started to play again after illness. He had the misfortune to be at Walsall when there was a wealth of good keepers and his career appearances at league level don’t tell the true story of this dedicated professional footballer. There were no keeper coaches around in those days and Keith observed,
” It was merely a case of watching and studying the work of others and having tips from the likes of John Christie. “
He also spoke of other senior pros like Albert McPherson and Ken Hodgkisson who looked after him and other young players.