DOM Ball is the second subject of ‘The Isolation Interview’ as he opens about his first encounter with Mark Warburton as a 10 year old, the support he receives from his parents and how he has progressed from a junior player at his local club Welwyn Pegasaus to a professional…
In December 2011 and – at the age of 15 – Dom Ball was about to encounter the first defining moment of his career.
He didn’t know it yet, though.
Ball had been in Watford’s academy since he was 10 and on this particular evening he was heading to Vicarage Road with his dad Tim for a mid-season review.
He’d had a good season up until that point but, upon arriving at the stadium, he saw one of his teammates, who cut straight to the chase. ‘I’m being let go’, he told him.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just a mid-season review.
“This adrenaline and nervousness came over my body,” Ball remembers. “I thought ‘sh*t - this is it now’. I went into the meeting and shook the coaches’ hands and I remember mine were so sweaty.
“I expected them to ease us into the meeting but within a couple of sentences the manager said ‘we’re not going to be offering you a scholarship’.”
Ball had been one of four midfielders in his age group at Watford. Luke O’Nien, now at Sunderland, Jack Westlake, who plays non-league football and is still a close friend of Ball’s, and Austin Eaton, who now doesn’t play, were the other three.
The trio were all enrolled into Watford’s scholarship scheme, meaning Ball was the only one not to receive the offer.
“As soon as they told me I was gone, I didn’t hear anything else they said in the meeting. I was numb. My dad said they didn’t really give me a reason why they were letting me go. I didn’t understand.”
The reality of academy football is harsh. Very harsh. Statistics suggest that 99 per cent of kids who join a club at a young age will not make it as a professional footballer.
Having been told that his Watford days were over, was Ball going to slip into that 99 per cent? Or was he going to force himself back into that one per cent?
We, of course, all know the answer to that now and what all QPR fans will have seen this season is that Dom Ball possesses a huge amount of grit and determination.
He needed those attributes back in December 2011 and he already had them as part of his armoury because within five days of that Watford meeting he had bagged himself and started a trial at Leicester City.
And before Christmas he’d also spend him at Norwich City – where his older brother Matt was in the second year of a scholarship – Ipswich Town, QPR and Tottenham Hotspur.
“In the car journey home from the meeting, I think my dad had that belief in me that I’d be fine and would get somewhere. Looking back now, it was one of the best things that happened to me in my career.
“It was my first setback and this motivation and anger had come up inside of me for the first time. I was so motivated to prove Watford wrong.”
Watford had offered to help find him a new club but the aforementioned trials had all been sourced by dad Tim, a former midfield player for Stevenage.
His three-day trial at Leicester came and went and, at the end of it… a scholarship offer.
Norwich; a scholarship offer. Ipswich; a scholarship offer. QPR, where Steve Gallen was in charge of the academy; a scholarship offer. Tottenham Hotspur; a scholarship offer, though it didn’t come immediately at Spurs.
Ball said: “Alex Inglethorpe, their academy coach, sat me down at the end of my week’s trial and said ‘look Dom, you’ve done really well but at the moment you’re not any better than what we already have. We need to see more from you’.
“I spent another two weeks there and I really enjoyed it. I really liked Alex Inglethorpe as a coach and I was so motivated to get an offer.
“It was so close to home and seemed perfect. The next two weeks, I gave it my all and it was probably two of the best weeks of football I have ever played.”
After those two weeks had passed, the scholarship offer that Ball really wanted came his way and, after receiving a positive reference from his headteacher, he put pen to paper.
His progression continued on the pitch and, off of it, 10 GCSEs at A*-B level were achieved, as well as one D in Spanish, that summer.
The next big target for any young academy prospect is securing a professional contract and for Ball – an attacking midfielder at this point – that time came in the summer of 2014.
“During my scholarship, I’d been pushed up to the reserves for a bit, had played a few games for them, was doing well and I thought I would be getting a pro contract.”
The men tasked with telling him whether he’d be getting one or not were Chris Ramsey – now QPR’s Head of Coaching – and John McDermott, who recently joined The FA from Spurs.
“They told me that they were going to be offering me a third-year extension to my scholarship rather than a professional contract and for me that was the most painful news I had ever heard.
“I’d worked so hard during my scholarship and once again it was like ‘you’re just not there yet’. On that car journey home, that was the first time football had made me cry. I cried so much.
“I got home to see my mum and dad and I burst out crying again. I was in pieces. I’d put so much into it [my scholarship] and I didn’t expect to not get a pro deal.
“Once again, though, it turned out to be another of the best things that happened to me because that summer I worked extra hard.
“I came back for pre-season training under Les Ferdinand, Chris and Tim Sherwood and I was straight into the team and within six weeks I was offered my pro contract. They said I deserved it because of that summer work I had put in.”
Another hurdle had been overcome and a year later – after initially being told by Spurs that he was going to be released – he penned another 12-month deal in north London.
The next target was senior football. That came, along with the reward of a new two-and-a-half-year contract, in January 2015.
Half a season on loan at Cambridge United was followed by a full campaign at Glasgow Rangers, which meant reuniting with Mark Warburton, who had been an academy coach at Watford during Ball’s school days.
“As a young player, you were always excited for the sessions with the best coaches and the gaffer was obviously one of those. Every time he was training us, I was excited because it was very technical, very detailed and fun.”
Ball also cites coaches David Dodds, Sean Dyche – now Burnley boss – and Tim Lees as having a big impact on him during his tender years.
When it came to joining Rangers, it was now about winning rather than development, though. The Gers were one division away from returning to the SPL and winning promotion was a must.
They achieved that – amassing 81 points from their 36 league matches to be crowned champions – whilst also winning the Scottish Challenge Cup and reaching the final of the Scottish FA Cup, beating bitter rivals Celtic in the semis at Hampden.
Ball remembers: “It was the first time I was away from home. I lived in the west end of Glasgow and I absolutely loved it.
“Sometimes I’d walk into town and people would be driving alongside me and Celtic fans would be shouting abuse out of the window and similarly you’d have Rangers fans shouting praise.
“At 19 years old, it was a lot to take in and it was the first time that I really felt like a professional footballer.”
Ball admits that he had goosebumps every time he walked out at Ibrox but the cup semi-final day at Hampden – a dramatic, penalty shoot-out victory – is the memory that really stands out.
He said: “Still to this day, it is one of the best days of my life. The build-up to the game lasted six weeks. I had 15 of my friends and family come up and as it was a semi-final it was all that everyone was talking about.
“Standing in the tunnel, there was this feeling that we were going to win the game. You walked out and there were fireworks, fans were chanting, nerves but once it got started it was unreal.”
Upon returning to England, Ball had 12 months remaining on his Tottenham contract but having tasted regular first-team football he elected to make a permanent switch to Rotherham United.
A good start in terms of appearances made for Rotherham was followed by a spell out of the team, which saw him head out on loan to Peterborough United and, for the following season, Aberdeen.
It was a similar story in the north of Scotland as after a bright start he then dropped out of the side for two months.
“I found it really tough. I was struggling to deal with it all. My football wasn’t going well, I was up there on my own in a flat and I wasn’t enjoying it.
“I didn’t really make any time for any of the lads and it wasn’t until my brother rang me after Christmas and said ‘you’re playing football for a living, so stop overthinking things and just enjoy kicking a ball around every day’.
“Since then, my mindset has changed. I’m a lot more relaxed whereas before I was more tense around it all.”
He fought his way back into the team at Aberdeen and a strong end to the 2017/18 campaign meant that The Dons took Ball on loan for the whole of the following season.
By this point, he was playing regularly in his now familiar holding midfield role and the Dom Ball that QPR fans have loved watching this season was beginning to grow again.
Summer 2019 came and his Rotherham contract expired. Aberdeen put a permanent offer on the table but a few days later Mark Warburton was named as QPR boss.
“The offer from QPR didn’t come until a little bit later,” Ball recalls. “But when the gaffer got the job at QPR and offered me a contract here it was perfect.”
Fast forward to the present day and Warburton’s addition of the man he has known since the age of 10 has certainly been a shrewd one.
Though he may not boast the stepovers and trickery of some of the QPR squad, Ball’s selfless work in front of the defence enables Rangers’ flair players to thrive.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by those in the stands either. Ball was deservedly named as supporters’ Player of the Month for February as QPR moved back to within six points of the play-off places.
So, when football does return, what can be achieved?
Ball insisted: “The only aim is to get into the play-offs and I know there are lot of teams pushing for it. If we were to carry on with our current form then I think we’ll be in them.
“We haven’t played well in all of our last six games but we have got results and that’s what we’ll be looking to continue.”
This summer, Ball is due to complete a Business Studies degree, which he has been studying for the last five years at the Open University. Hopefully – assuming football resumes in the near future – he’ll have successes on and off the pitch to celebrate.