Born and bred in Bolton, James Ball’s heart was set on playing the rest of his playing career up north, but a call from Wimbledon changed everything!
The lure of Plough Lane tempted the midfielder back down south and he’s certainly not regretting his decision after helping the Dons to mount a play-off challenge.
James has had to wait patiently for his opportunity in yellow and blue this season, but his battle for game-time is just the latest big challenge he’s come through in a career that threatened to be derailed after being allowed to leave hometown club Bolton.
During an extensive interview for your matchday programme, James also reveals how he got spotted by his first club Liverpool, his football heroes, and why there could be a potential second career in property.
Why did you decide that Wimbledon was the place where you wanted to play football?
I had a difficult season at Rochdale with relegation and you worry that clubs might look at you and think, ‘he got relegated, so we won’t sign him’, but thankfully not!
It wasn’t necessarily the case that it was down to individuals. It went wrong for us, as a team, and when I heard about Wimbledon’s interest in me I had my sights set on coming here. I had a couple of other offers, but nothing really interested me – I was just waiting for this move to materialize. It took longer than I wanted, but I kept on asking my agent, ‘what’s happening with Wimbledon?’
With the size of Wimbledon and the history of the Club – everyone remembers the FA Cup win in 1988 – it caught the eye. The story about how the Club bounced back also made a lot of appeal and when I came down last season with Rochdale I felt the stadium was unbelievable.
You live in Wimbledon, so have you met many Dons supporters when you’ve been out and about?
Every now and then I’ve bumped into a few fans. I’ve enjoyed going to The Rushmere on Wimbledon Common. Wimbledon is a really nice place with really good people around, so I can’t knock it really!
Was it difficult to make the move down south again?
Nothing really matched this. When I signed for Rochdale I said to myself, ‘that’s me now, I’m not going to move back down south!’ I was back home, I was happy, and had moved into a new house, but I said to my agent that Wimbledon was really tempting me. It offered the chance to play for a nice club in a nice place and to become a Wimbledon player was something that really turned my head. There was no stopping it really, unless the Club said no, and fortunately they didn’t!
I absolutely loved spending time with my two nephews up north and watching them grow up, so I miss that, but it’s a short career and you have to make the most of it. I try to get home when I can, but it’s a bit of a trek. I couldn’t have picked a better club - I absolutely love it here.
Six years ago Dino Maamria described you as one of the best players in non league football and you subsequently ended up at Stevenage. Was that a turning point in your career?
It was a big break for me as it offered an opportunity to play league football. It started really well as I scored five goals in 20 games, but it went downhill from there. I ended up leaving just after the first year, which looking back was a bad decision. I got a bit frustrated with the situation and wanted to leave, but I should have stayed. Ultimately, it’s all part of the journey. I was young then, only 20 or 21, and it was my first league club.
Did you think your career was going to take off at that stage?
After leaving Bolton, I had a good spell at Stockport, who were in non league at the time. Once I left there for Stevenage I thought, ‘that’s it for me, I’ll push on in league football now’. I scored on my debut, then away at Norwich, and there was a lot of hype around me, but it fizzled out from around December onwards and I ended up leaving.
During your time in non league did you ever have to contemplate getting another job?
I didn’t have to go down that route. The non league step was always there to put me in the shop window for a chance in league football and I was with full-time clubs, so I didn’t need to have another job.
I did work outside football though with a property investment company. The idea was build a property portfolio. I’ve stayed in touch, but since I moved away it’s been more difficult because it was based in Birmingham. The opportunity came about through a board member at Solihull, and I was involved on the recruitment side of it. When I moved back up north it became difficult to keep it going. It fizzled out, but it’s definitely something I could pick-up again.
What made you keep believing that you would make it as a league footballer?
When you set your sights on becoming a footballer you don’t just give up at the first hurdle. I’ve seen so many players that were tipped to have good careers, but as soon as they take a backward step they give up. That was never in my mind. When I was playing in non league I always felt I would get back into the league at some point.
How did you get spotted as a kid?
I was playing for my Sunday League team away in Liverpool and one of the Dads watching just happened to be a scout for Liverpool. One of our lads was ill, so I played up front and scored a hat-trick! After that I was asked to go on trial. Man City also wanted me to go there, so I had to make a choice between them and Liverpool. I chose to go to Liverpool, which I felt was the right decision because their academy was known for being one of the best in the country.
I loved it at Liverpool, but it just became a bit too much every day with travelling there from Bolton after school all the time. Bolton were interested, so we asked Liverpool if they would let me go, and I ended up doing my scholarship and my first real pro with my hometown club. Cameron Brannagan was in the same age group as me at Liverpool and he was in opposition when we played Oxford last week. I played as a striker for Liverpool, but when I joined Bolton I switched to centre-back for the last year of my contract. I moved forward from there, so anything centrally I’ve done – apart from keeper!
Did you support Bolton as a kid?
Yes, I went to the games when I was growing up – times when the club were in the Premier League and the Championship. During my last year there was when all the difficulties with money started. The club didn’t have the funds to offer players contracts, so a lot of us got released. They didn’t have the money to give as many pro contracts out, compared to a few years earlier.
One person’s opinion can effectively determine how your career goes and I was certain that I was not going to let that happen to me. I was intent on playing football elsewhere and proving how good I could be. I’m still doing that now, to be honest. You never really stop trying to prove yourself. I’ve always strived to play at the highest level possible. If I can play higher with Wimbledon, even better.
Who were your football heroes growing up?
I was a big Arsenal fan when I was a kid because it was the era of the ‘Invincibles’. They were my second team, so I loved Thierry Henry, but it wasn’t just Arsenal as I also looked up to Zinedine Zidane.
What was the toughest time in your career?
I would say the time when we played football behind closed doors during the Covid period. I was fortunate that I had a year still left on my contract when Covid came, but it was difficult to plan ahead because no one knew what would happen next. It was difficult when I had knock backs earlier in my career, but I was never too worried as I felt I would always bounce back. Playing in games with no supporters just didn’t feel right, it was no fun, and it was a difficult time because you had to be on your own a lot.
How do you assess your time here so far?
If I’m honest, it has been a bit frustrating because I’ve not played as much as I would have liked. I’ve said to members of my family that the team is doing well so I can’t really moan too much! I knew I’d have to be patient because I joined late in pre-season. It never got to the point of me thinking, ‘this isn’t for me’. Instead I’ve been thinking, ‘when I get my chance, I will take it’. I’ve tried to do that and I think the fans can appreciate that I’ve been giving my best in a Wimbledon shirt to help the Club. I got back into the team last week, so we’ll see. I’ll keep being for whenever I’m called upon.
I had an honest conversation with the manager and he told me that I’d been really unlucky because Jake and Armani have managed to stay fit and in form for so long. Sometimes football is like that, you can’t switch off because you have to be ready when your chance comes along. I wasn’t expecting to play at Wrexham, but we had lads away on international duty and a suspension, so I was given an opportunity.
And you played in a different position, in a more forward role. Was you pleased with the way you adjusted to that role?
I played as a striker when I was younger so it was not completely alien! It’s a lot different playing League Two football to when I was a 13-year-old in the Academy at Liverpool, but I’m big and a handful. I’ll try to be a nuisance and put myself about to help the team out.
Do you watch a lot of other football, or do you prefer to switch off from it?
I am a bit of a football addict! If there’s a game on at night I’ll watch it, but I don’t mind the golf every now and then. It’s just not the weather for it at the moment though.
What is your career highlight?
Probably the Chelsea game. My family all came down to watch and it’s not every day that you get to play at Chelsea!