Kevin Ball reveals message to George Honeyman and Sunderland squad ahead of Wembley final against former club Portsmouth
When Lee Swabey sent George Honeyman for an early shower following his part in the Wycombe Wanderers melee, Kevin Ball’s heart sank.
The fear the Sunderland skipper would miss out on leading his side in a Wembley final, having worked so hard to break through and establish himself, was heartbreaking.
The elation then, when news trickled through 48-hours later that a mid-season rule change meant Honeyman’s three-game league ban wouldn’t include the Checkatrade Trophy final, was immense.
Ball and Honeyman go way back, the ex-Sunderland skipper-turned club ambassador was one of Honeyman’s coaches as he worked his way through the academy structure.
Honeyman has always spoken highly of Ball’s influence on him and the values he instilled.
“At the time I really felt for him as I thought initially he was going to miss the chance to captain his side at Wembley,” Ball told the Echo.
“Having done that myself, it is a tremendous honour, the greatest you can bestow on a player and as players you want to do something like that.
“When it transpired he would be available - remembering of course that the manager has to select him - I was buzzing, delighted for him.
“I have spoken to him about the sending off, to me it came across as he was just trying to get the ball back and defend people within the club, he wanted us to get a result in that game.
“One of the values we want from our players is passion, yes people should be controlled, but try saying to a player – who has been carted off with a bang on the head – control your emotions, it is not always easy in the moment. I genuinely felt for him.
“My concern was we would miss him for the league games and also that this possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would be gone.
“So I was especially pleased for George, he has worked bloody hard to get to where he is, I have been fortunate enough to be part of that journey.
“I wouldn’t want him to lose that opportunity but he also needs to be selected as well and that is the manager’s decision.”
Honeyman and Lynden Gooch are among the academy graduates Ball has had a big influence on as they worked hard to make the grade at Sunderland.
Ball added: “A lot of staff at Sunderland have helped them over the years but when the opportunity is presented they are the ones that have to take it and they have done that and done it very well and should be given a pat on the back for it.
“You look over the course of the season how the Checkatrade Trophy has benefited some of the other younger players at the club, the cup itself has been great for the progression of the young players to go and play against senior teams.
“It is a fantastic opportunity, for them to learn where they are as young footballers and what they need to aspire to.
“Credit to them it has also culminated in a final.
“The manager has always taken it seriously, if you do and reach the final then you deserve the accolade that will come your way.”
Ball knows all too well what it means to lead Sunderland out at a Wembley final, backed by what feels like the whole of Wearside. He captained the side against Charlton Athletic in the infamous 1998 Division One play-off final.
“1992 cup final I wasn’t captain but the play-off final was different for me because I was captain,” added Ball.
“I can remember telling myself to enjoy the day. The ‘92 cup final, you are that focused on the game that you forget to enjoy it.
“When you do enjoy it, it allows you to play with a lot more freedom.
“To lead the side out at Wembley was great for me personally and I remember thinking ‘’92 cup final I can’t remember much about it, make sure you enjoy this one’.
“Make sure you make the most of the opportunity as you may not get one again.
“If I ever say anything to a player it is, ‘You are going to Wembley, go there and enjoy it, play with freedom, everybody works hard at Wembley because they want to win but go there and express yourself and enjoy the occasion with your teammates and family.
“Will there will be a focus on the game? Absolutely. But you must enjoy the day.’”
And it is set to be some day, Sunderland selling their near 40,000 allocation in just five-and-a-half days.
For Ball, the final sees two of his former clubs go toe-to-toe, having played more than a 100 games for Pompey before becoming a club legend at Sunderland.
Ball added: “Portsmouth were my old team, our son Luke was born there, I have always had that great affinity with Portsmouth.
“It is great for the Checkatrade Trophy, two great clubs, both going for promotion in League One, big fan bases.
“The atmosphere will be great and from a players’ point of view if you are going to play in a Wembley final then it will have everything.
“For our club, after the last couple of years that have been difficult, it is nice the fans get the day out at Wembley.
“But I stress it’s only a good day out if it turns into a great one – and it’s a great one if you win.”