A former Miller Down Under ... Rotherham United promotion-winner David Ball on his new life in New Zealand and why he left New York Stadium

A former Miller Down Under ... Rotherham United promotion-winner David Ball on his new life in New Zealand and why he left New York Stadium

By Paul Davis | 24/07/2020

A former Miller Down Under ... Rotherham United promotion-winner David Ball on his new life in New Zealand and why he left New York Stadium
David Ball and his family enjoying life in New Zealand

IT was a familiar press-conference scene but there were tell-tale signs that David Ball was more than 11,000 miles from home.

The former Rotherham United forward was meeting the media after flying to the other side of the world to sign for his new club.

Cameras clicked away in the background as he fielded questions in his usual open manner, fighting the jet lag and sipping from a glass of water. The ready smile, the friendly demeanour, the honest answers, the neat hair and traces of a beard, we’d seen all those before.

Yet his was the only English accent in the room and the logos on the backdrop bore names that aren’t associated with the English game: Foxtel, Huawei, Harvey Norman.

Ball was in New Zealand, Ball’s black tracksuit sported an alien yellow badge, Ball was now an A-League attacker with Wellington Phoenix.

Within a few weeks, to compound the feeling of being in a far-off land, he would even find himself performing the Haka.

The move came 12 months ago and the player who won promotion to the Championship in his first season at AESSEAL New York Stadium before spending the next campaign on loan at League One Bradford City says: “I found it tough to leave Rotherham.

“Some good clubs wanted me, four or five in League One. Bradford wanted to do something with me but they were in a different position because they’d just been relegated.

“I was having talks with different managers, then Andy Todd, who was assistant manager to Gary Bowyer at Bradford and had played in the A-League, called me.

“He said: ‘Listen, there are two clubs in the A-League that want to chat to you.’ At the time, I was coming off the first relegation I’d had on my CV. Mentally, that was a tough one to take. I just felt that, coming up to 30, it was a good time in my career to go somewhere and not be ‘past it’.

“I felt I was in my prime and could go out there, make a name for myself and do something different in my career. I got the green light from the wife and that was it then.”

It’s worked out well. Ball is sitting in his beachside house as we chat on Zoom last month. His two boys, eight-year-old Mason and Jude, just turned five, are happy and wife Sarah contentedly potters in the background during our hour-long conversation.

The UK is 11 hours behind New Zealand so my Wednesday morning is his Wednesday evening.

Although Ball was providing plenty of assists, an ankle-ligament injury and a seven-match wait for his first goal meant made for a frustrating start to his new life. There were ups and downs, although nowhere near as many as there was at Mason’s birthday when Ball junior had ten pals from his new school round for a trampoline party.

The goals soon started to flow and the former Miller with the quick feet and even quicker mind is now one of the most feared forwards in the A-League while Wellington, the only Kiwi side competing against ten Australian teams, are enjoying their best-ever season.

‘Ka tu te ihiihi,’ Ball chanted during his Haka. ‘Feel the power.’

The striker had the choice of two A-League clubs before opting for New Zealand’s North Island. “I did six weeks here on my own,” he says. “I came out and got everything set up. I got the house ready. I was building beds and all that, as you do! I got it ready so it looked like a home. I had to wait for Sarah and the kids to come out.”

Brexit and coronavirus prevented the sale of the family home in St Helens which is being rented out while the Balls lease a property just metres from the South Pacific Ocean.

“The beach is literally just at the back of the house,” he says. “You walk through some bushes and then the beach is to your left. We love it.

“The weather is good and we’re on the beach most days. It’s a different way of life for us all. I do a bit of fishing and I’ve got a jet ski as well. I get out with the kids with that and explore everywhere round here. It’s really good fun.

“It’s a big jump for us all, more so for Sarah and the kids than me because I get to take my mind off things by going and doing what I love in playing football.

“The kids have settled in well at school, which is just round the corner. Everything is within walking distance. It’s really quiet and chilled out. There are lots of walks and outdoor stuff you can do. The family have really taken to it. It’s been a really good experience.”

He’s still in touch with many of the old Rotherham crew and it’s obvious how much respect he retains for manager Paul Warne.

The day after our talk, during which he picks Joe Newell as the best trainer he encountered with the Millers, a WhatsApp alert pings on my phone and Ball is changing his mind. “The Gaffer will crucify me if I say Newelly, Mate,” he writes, signing off with a series of laughing-face emojis.

Warne was the boss who decided to release him but their friendship endures.

“It’s quite frustrating,” Ball says. “I’ve seen a few things on social media saying that me and Warney fell out.

“I don’t think people knew the whole story of what had gone on behind the scenes. I haven’t got a bad word to say about Warney. He’s always been there if I’ve needed him for a phone call and vice versa. We’ve got a really good relationship.

“We drop each other a text now and then and obviously I texted him when he went through all the stuff with his dad dying. It’s always nice to hear from him. He’s a good man and a good manager. He’s got great staff behind him with Richie (number two Barker) and Hammy (coach Matt Hamshaw) as well.

“At the start of the season I left, we did a thing with Warney where we came in and spoke about our families in front of everyone. You’d be surprised how many tears there were in the room when players spoke about where they had come from and why they play the game.

“That’s Warney all over in terms of what he wants to create at Rotherham.”

Not that the boss has ever asked anyone at Roundwood to take part in the Haka.

“That was a very good day in terms of learning about the Maori culture,” grins Ball about one of his inductions into how things are done Down Under.

“There was a day for the (overseas) lads who didn’t know much about it. The guy who taught the All Blacks how to do the Haka came in.

“We ended up in two groups doing it against each other, which was quite an experience. I was in the middle. No, I wasn’t at the front with my tongue out. That’s not really me!”

Mascot duty Down Under for Ball's two young sons

Before March’s Covid-19 lockdown, Wellington had climbed to third in the table — or ‘ladder’, as they say over there — and Ball, who has a year left on his Phoenix contract, had scored five times in his last nine outings.

The season is due to resume next month and the top six finishers will contest the Grand Final, the winner of which will be crowned A-League champions.

It has echoes of his first year with Rotherham when, after a stuttering start, club and player won promotion in the 2018 League One Final by beating Shrewsbury Town 2-1 at Wembley.

“I loved every minute of it,” he recalls. “It was a special group of lads. I came into the side in November/December time when Kieffer (loan striker Moore) got his suspension and then went back to Ipswich Town in January.

“I played with Jerry (Yates) at Blackpool, we came back from a goal down to win 2-1 and we didn’t look back from then on. That second half turned the season. There was a lot of stuff being said at that time and we were really in the dumps as a team.

“I managed to get us a couple of goals, which is my job. It lit up the changing room and we just seemed to roll and roll and get better and better. The way we did it was actually quite special in terms of the 14-game unbeaten run.

“To finish it off at Wembley in the style we did, with Woody (Richard Wood) scoring twice ... you couldn’t have written that. It speaks volumes about what we were about that year. It was great to be a big part of it.”

We’ve been talking for a while and the conversation is flowing. Ball is as genuine and humble as anyone I’ve met in football and he’s always made the effort to keep in contact. Bless him, he looks as pleased to be in my company as I am to be in his.

His missus has to remind him to mention his two Goal-of-the-Month awards and also being voted A-League Player of the Month.

At his prompting, I tell him about the Millers’ promotion season and how they fought through a series of heartaches to secure their place back in the second tier.

He hasn’t heard about the tragic death of Richie Barker’s younger brother, Chris, and his shock is visible on screen. I learn later that within hours of us saying our farewells he’s contacted the assistant boss to offer his condolences.

There was to be no second season with the Millers as Ball moved on loan to Bradford after only one Championship appearance. That earlier oblique reference to something going on behind the scenes related to a serious accident involving his eldest son who was hit by a car during a family holiday in Dubai.

“That summer I was working hard and looking forward to getting my chance in the Championship,” he says. “With the things that were happening and Mason’s injuries, I probably didn’t come back into pre-season in the right physical and mental state.

“Although I tried as hard as I could, I probably wasn’t ‘there’ at the time. I think the manager could see that and probably my teammates could see that at the time. I tried my hardest to get through but it wasn’t a great time for me off the pitch. It ended up probably affecting my chances of doing something with Rotherham that season.

“Warney changed the system and it was, kind of, on the last day of the window: ‘You’re probably not going to play as much as you want to play.’ It was frustrating to hear because of the year I’d had before and because of the hard work I’d put in over the summer.

“I didn’t really tell anyone outside the club about my son’s accident because I didn’t want it to be an excuse. That was the mentality I had. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me.”

Mason needed a number of skin grafts and Ball can’t reveal much more than that because lawyers are involved.

“He’s okay,” says Dad. “He’s still got big scars he’s still getting treatment for. He’s a tough little lad and he’s been fantastic. He’s probably got me and my missus through it. Alder Hey Hospital were fantastic when we got him back here. They helped him a lot.”

Ball is one of the five permitted foreigners in the Phoenix squad, along with centre-forward Gary Hooper, once of Celtic and Sheffield Wednesday, ex Newcastle United defender Steven Taylor and German midfield man Matti Steinmann.

“Then there’s a Mexican lad, Uli Desires Da Silva,” he adds before giving up on trying to pronounce attacking midfielder Ulises Davila’s name and laughing: “We just call him Uli!

“The rest are Aussie and Kiwi lads. I’d say the standard was similar to the top of League One. It shocked me, to tell you the truth, how good it was. The only thing that makes it slow down a little bit is the heat.”

He says of Wellington: “It’s a bit of a town and a city really. That’s what’s nice about it. Although it’s the capital, it’s quite a small city compared to Auckland. It’s about a ten-minute drive from my house into the city and five or ten minutes to any of the beaches. It’s a lovely place.”

Every day is a g’day in New Zealand but living in such an idyllic setting doesn’t come without its cost.

“I miss my mum and dad and family,” Ball says. “We were due to fly back on May 22. The season should have finished by then and there would have been four or five weeks when we could get back home.

“Obviously, though, travel has been a no-goer. I don’t think I will see them now until this time next year. I’ve not seen them since we moved.

“Sarah’s mum and dad have been out here. My sister has been out. But my mum and dad haven’t managed to get out here yet. We keep in touch through FaceTime or Zoom calls most days.”

Ball sets his alarm for the early hours to watch English football on his Sky TV feed. The games of his own side, who attract home crowds of up to 15,000, are televised by Foxtel in a Sky-like format, allowing the Antipodean audience to see how well the Phoenix front duo have teamed up.

“I hit the ground running with assists but things really changed when Hoops came into the side and I had someone to work off,” Ball says. “That’s when I started getting the goals I’d deserved in the first few games but didn’t score. I’ve been involved in ten goals in 19 games, I think it is.

“I got four or five assists in the first four or five games and then flipped it and I started getting goals. I was coming into good form when we had to stop playing.

“The system is two up top. Sometimes I’ve played as a ‘10’ but mainly I’ve been one of the two strikers. We play really good fluid football. We’re on course to create history for Wellington’s highest finish. Then we’ve got a really good chance of the Grand Finals.”

Time for the Haka again in Ball’s brave new world.

‘Au, au, aue ha.’ ‘And it is my time. It is my moment.’

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