Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Alan and Jim: Memories are made of this!

Ooh, Aah, Alan Ball's Da'?

Alan Ball has died. England’s youngest World Cup winner (or England’s eleventh oldest World Cup winner) succumbed to a heart attack at the age of just 61.

Down south, of course, this gives the media the chance to revel in the kind of mass grief that they have perfected since ‘The People’s Princess’ died.

For those of us in Scotland it means we are reminded once again about 1966 and all that.

Ah, those painful memories of non goals and pitch invasions!

But at least it allows us our own spot of navel gazing: 1967 and Alan Ball’s entry into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

Ball it was that Jim Baxter targeted to feel the full force of his genius at Wembley that day. Sir Alex Ferguson has said that Baxter’s performance could have been set to music. It would be the sound of Alan Ball being tortured.

When Denis Law urged Baxter to cut the fancy stuff and go for goals Slim Jim just smiled and continued with his repertoire of tricks. This included exchanging more than 20 passes with Billy Bremner and Tommy Gemmell as Ball scurried between them trying in vain to get the ball. The masters became the tormented slaves.

Baxter would dine out on the story for years, often pretending to forget Ball’s name: to Slim Jim Ball would always be the “wee ginger boy, squeaky voice an’ that.”

And Jim, in his pomp, couldn’t resist ‘sledging’ Ball either. “Is it true” he enquired, “that Jimmy Clitheroe wis your faither.”

Jimmy Clitheroe, of course, was a comedian who happened to be Lancastrian, squeaky voiced and very, very short. The short, squeaky voiced Lancastrian Alan Ball recognised the force of the insult.

To his eternal credit Ball, though furious, kept his head. One always got the impression, however, that he was never quite able to forgive or forget the day Jim Baxter stole Wembley.

Both Baxter and Ball are gone now. They followed different paths in both life and death. But both left memories of great games and great talent. That, not the mocked up hysteria of the English press, should be their lasting legacy.