Kevin Ball will watch Sunday’s Euro 2020 final like a proud parent as his two Jordans attempt to write themselves into England’s sporting history.
The former Sunderland skipper played a key role in the emergence of both keeper Jordan Pickford, 27, and 31-year-old midfielder Jordan Henderson from the Black Cats’ Academy on their way to establishing themselves as Premier League players and ultimately, international stars.
Everton’s Pickford has played every minute of England’s tournament to date and conceded just a single goal, while Liverpool skipper Henderson has added energy, experience and game-management from the bench, and Ball has not been remotely surprised by their contributions to date.
Their lead coach at the Academy of Light told the PA news agency: “I’ve always said to the pair of them, reaching the top is the easy part; staying there is the hard part.
“You have seen with the pair of them, they constantly have to be on top of their game. But I saw when they were young they would have that in their lockers.
“You knew the pair of them would do it because their ability was there, but the overriding thing was the attitude behind the ability, their attitude to want to be the best, carry on being the best and stay the best.
“It’s not a career where you can say to yourself, ‘I want to be a footballer today, but tomorrow I just want to be me’.
“If you want to get to the highest level in the game, the amount of work physically, mentally, emotionally, whatever you want to call it for any player is absolutely immense.”
Both players joined Sunderland’s Academy as eight-year-olds with the older Henderson, now a Champions League and Premier League-winning captain, blazing a trail.
Ball said: “What I like the most about Jordan is everything is understated. He does everything quietly, methodically without anybody telling him, and he does it why? Because he wants to do it.
“He was brilliant with our younger players and also his team-mates when he played. He always looked out for them and looked after them, and that’s been prevalent in everything you have seen in his career since.”
🏴 England stars back in the day! 😀— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) July 4, 2021
Among Pickford’s possessions is a photograph of him as a young supporter collecting Ball’s autograph, and the former midfielder was to play a significant part in the acceleration of his career path – in particular his impressive distribution skills – before he was sent out on loan to Darlington as a 17-year-old.
The former midfielder said: “Jordan is like a ball-playing centre-back. We used to put him in the passing drills, he’d do possession games with us and boxes, and Jordan was exceptional with his feet.
“He’s been excellent in the tournament. His game-management has been very consistent and I have thoroughly enjoyed watching him.
“In amongst all those decisions he’ll make, will there be one or two that will be questioned? Absolutely, that’s normal.
“But the amount of things he’s done in terms of passing out from the back, where he’s dropped it in to the centre-forward or dropped the over the top for Raheem Sterling, you look at all of that and it’s not good play, it’s exceptional play.”
Ball, who travelled to Russia to watch the duo in the 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia, admitted he and his colleagues will watch the final against Italy like “proverbial parents”, proud, but anxious, although with a familiar and typically uncompromising message at the forefront of his mind.
He said: “What I will say to them is this, and I’ve always said it: no-one remembers who’s the runner-up, do they?”
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