Ball: 'I was intense... my only aim was to play for Man United'
- Credit: ITFC
There's an old head on the relatively young shoulders of Dominic Ball.
Still just 26 years old, Ipswich Town's latest recruit has learnt so much from the sharp emotional twists and turns of football's compressed life cycle.
It's all chronicled in his book 'From Winning Teams to Broken Dreams', which was released in April this year.
"It's about me and five mates who all started off with one ambition - to make the Premier League," explains the midfielder, in an interview on talkSPORT last month.
"Unfortunately none of us have made it just yet. I'll still keep going. That's still my dream to make it and hopefully there'll be another book.
"Spencer McCall is one of the boys who features in the book and, probably out of all of us, probably loved football the most. He was playing for Hemel Hempstead before he was diagnosed with Sarcoma (a rare form of bone cancer that took his life in July last year at the age of 26). I think he'd be so proud of me now with the book (the proceeds of which go to Sarcoma UK) finally being out and telling our stories of how hard it was trying to make it."
Outlining the start of his football journey, Ball explains: "It was Under-10s. I was playing for Welling Pegasus, my local team, along with Harry Toffolo, who is at Huddersfield Town now, and one of the lads who is featured in the book, Mason Bush.
"My older brother had been asked to go to Watford on trial and the scout asked 'has he got any brothers?' He came to watch me in a Cup Final, I had a really good game, had a six-week trial and they offered me a contract after that.
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"I eventually got released by Watford at Under-16 level and thought 'I'm going to show you'. I went on five trials before Spurs picked me up."
Ball played for Tottenham at U18 and U23s level. He was an unused sub for the first team under Tim Sherwood (a Europa League draw at Benfica) and twice more under Mauricio Pochettino. He played six times for England at U20 level during that time.
The big Premier League breakthrough didn't come though. First came a League Two loan spell at Cambridge United, then came a formative year at Rangers under his former Watford youth coach Mark Warburton. He started 24 games that season (2015/16) as the Scottish giants finally returned to the top-flight and beat rivals Celtic in the FA Cup semi-finals.
"That was one of the best years of my career," he recalls. "Playing in an Old Firm derby was unbelievable. When you join Rangers it's like you've joined a family. Every day people are asking for photos and signatures. It's very intense. You realise that football is a way of life for people up there."
A permanent switch to Rotherham followed. However, just six months into a three-year deal with the Championship club he was loaned down a division to Peterborough. Then, six games into his time at London Road, Ball was sent back to South Yorkshire after boss Grant McCann revealed the midfielder 'didn't agree with the team picked'.
After that came a move back north of the border courtesy of a season-long loan at Aberdeen.
"That was the hardest moment if my career," he says. "I was having a tough time at Rotherham, I'd just signed for three years there but wasn't in the plans, so last day of the window I went up to Aberdeen. I thought I was going to go straight into the team and play 40 games that season and I played two (he actually started nine league games), so I lost the trust of the manager straight away. That was Derek McInnes who, by the way, helped me massively the following year.
"But I was up there on my own. I just felt so lonely. I'd actually lost the love of football. For six months I was finishing training, going straight back to my room and I lost that love of football. All of us in the book went through that at one stage."
Asked how he got that love of the game back, Ball explains: "My brother actually rang me and said 'Dom, you're playing football for a living, you're earning good money, so just go out there and enjoy actually kicking a ball about'. It was as simple as that.
"I was quite an intense person. The fact I've written a book during my career explains my character. I was going to the gym twice a day. I've got a lot of energy. But my brother was saying 'just relax, stop over-thinking everything'. From that moment I've tried to enjoy every training session and game."
A second, more productive season on loan at Aberdeen followed. That led to a permanent switch to QPR, much nearer to his native Hertfordshire. Determined to start enjoying his football again, Ball became a fans' favourite through his work-rate and desire. Many Hoops fans voiced their disappointment when he was released at the end of last season following 100 appearances for the club over a three-year period.
"I absolutely loved my time at QPR," he said. "The fans took to me, I was playing relatively local to where I grew up and, although I didn't play much over the last six months, overall I really enjoyed it.
"I'm talking to a few Championship clubs at the moment and I'm excited about a new challenge.
"I think I have done enough over the last three years, over my whole career actually, to get another good club, hopefully one that's pushing in the Championship.
"I've had a lot of set-backs in my career and it's made me a more robust and resilient, which I think you need. That's helped me prepare for moments like these.
"I have got to speak to managers and find out how I would fit in their plans and their club. Having not played so much over the last six months I just can't wait to get going again."
Ultimately it was Ipswich Town, managed by Ball's former Tottenham youth coach Kieran McKenna, who proved the most persuasive in those discussions. The Blues have landed themselves a hungry player heading into his prime years.
"I'm very proud of where I've got to now," he says. I've made it to 100 Championship games now - I feel I'm a success. But if you'd have asked me that question three or four years ago I would have said 'no' because my only aim was to play for Man United. Everything else before that I felt like I was... not failing, but it was all just a part of getting to United.
"I went to Aberdeen, I went to Rotherham. All of that was to get back to where I wanted to be.
"That was the whole point of the book. What I hope the book will do is show that no kid has failed even if they don't go on to play a professional game. You've had those memories of playing in an academy. You've had that opportunity. The actual odds of making it to the Premier League, it's nearly impossible. But for ages I was being hard on myself, being very critical, saying 'why are you not playing in the Premier League?' Then you realise, actually it's something like 0.01% of academy players are going to go on and play in the Premiership.
"I feel like I've been a success and I still want more success."
Ball, who studied for a business degree at the Open University over a six-year period while playing, adds: "The rewards for making it as a footballer are unbelievable, so it has to be tough to make it. You have to go through struggles to get to the Premier League, to get to the Championship and become a top, elite player.
"There was only one thing we (the six players featured in the book) cared about and that was becoming professional footballers and making it to the Premier League.
"Mason got dropped at 17 and he just didn't know what to do. He was so sure he was going to make it as a footballer, which a lot of youngsters are. You don't want to believe that the chances are so slim.
"That's what this book is about, it's about saying to young boys let go by academies that they are not a failure and reminding them that they've actually done really well to get to that level in the first place."
Asked for his advice to aspiring young footballers, he adds: "I went from playing local football where it was just pure excitement, then I joined an academy and I started feeling a little bit anxious thinking I had to impress the coaches and show them what I can do. So I would say to any player 'just make sure you are enjoying it and express yourself'. That's not just young players, but players of any age.
"I lost that for a little bit. I wasn't enjoying the journey, I wasn't enjoying the here and now. I was just focussed on; How am I getting myself back to the Premier League? How am I getting to Man United? I was putting all that pressure on myself rather than just enjoying the game.
"When you play football feeling free and just enjoy yourself, there's nothing better. When you can go out and play with a smile on your face it makes a big difference - it does for me anyway."