Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Cometh the 90 mins, cometh the ballboy (or girl). In recent months, the young pitch-side assistants are having something of a moment, stepping into the spotlight – or rather the floodlights – for various reasons: good, bad, ugly, bizarre.
A significant number have been praised for their quick thinking and speedy movement, having an impact on important games. There was Callum Hynes, the 15-year-old Spurs ballboy whose lightning throw to Serge Aurier resulted in an equaliser (and later, a win) against Olympiakos in November. Hynes received a hug and fist bump from José Mourinho.
“The kid is a very good ballboy,” Mourinho said. “He understands the game; reads the game. He is not looking at the stands or the lights. He’s there living the game.” (Of course, this being Mourinho, he couldn’t help adding how brilliant a ballboy he had been in his youth.)
Mourinho had previously extolled an even more significant intervention: the actions of 14-year-old Oakley Cannonier, who rolled the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold for his genius corner in Liverpool’s sublime comeback against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. A competition Liverpool went on to win.
“The kid is very intelligent, very bright, he knew what Alexander-Arnold was going to do,” Mourinho said. “In a good structure, ballboys can play a part. I had a club where [they] never understood how important the ballboys are.”
Alexander-Arnold posed in a photograph with Cannonier and the former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also highlighted his contribution. Cannonier, an academy player, scored his first goal for the Reds under-18s shortly afterwards.
Incidentally, Alexander-Arnold – like Mourinho – also served as a ballboy. He was even on duty during the infamous Gerrard slip game in 2014. “I was on the halfway line with a horrible view of what happened,” he once told the Times.
Sometimes, however, ballboys and ballgirls are not the heroes but the villains.
Mourinho was not so generous when, as Chelsea manager, he complained after a defeat by Newcastle: “The ball disappeared, the ball doesn’t come, another ball comes, the ballboys run away.” (It’s possible that Mourinho’s Mastermind subject would be ballboys.)
It isn’t the only time the kids have been accused of bias or unsporting tactics. In 2013, Charlie Morgan threw himself on to the ball during a Capital One Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Swansea, resulting in a furious Eden Hazard kicking the boy (or the ball from underneath him). Hazard was sent off and he and Morgan were spoken to by police, with Hazard later apologising: “The boy put his whole body on to the ball and I was just trying to kick the ball. I think I kicked the ball and not the boy. I apologise.”
Morgan rather undermined his protestations of innocence when it turned out he had tweeted before the game about time-wasting. (He gained around 60,000 followers after the incident.)
Hazard isn’t the only one to have lost his cool in the face of wily teenagers. Almost as bad as Hazard’s incident was Liam Kelly, then with Leyton Orient, shoving a boy with both hands, resulting in a six-match ban from the Football Association. (Shakhtar Donetsk’s Facundo Ferreyra, who did the same thing during a Champions League game, escaped punishment.)
There was also the time cheeky Charlie Callaghan appeared to sarcastically clap in Jürgen Klopp’s face after a 0-0 derby draw.
Cristiano Ronaldo managed to keep his cool when trolled by a ballboy. Yeovil Town once had their entire coterie of ballboys “sent off” for time-wasting against Bromley.
Back with Spurs – who quite simply are the frontrunners when it comes to ballboy antics: one walked away from the pitch, preventing Watford taking a quick throw … then winked conspiratorially at the bench. Another chucked the ball at the Famagusta player Konstantinos Louboutis’s groin. (And was cheered by the home fans.)
Interventions aren’t down to chance. Clubs train their ballboys and ballgirls. Connonier’s contribution may well have been down to the video presentation the ballboys were shown before the Liverpool-Barça fixture. It was reported that “ball boys were shown footage of the quarter-final against Porto and the areas in which they could improve were highlighted”.
Over at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola (former ballboy) shared with the media the contents of a mid-game conversation with a City lad.
“The ballboys were slow, everybody was slow. And we have to create in the game, to provoke the game…In the second half, you could see immediately that the team was ready.”
Other examples of what are essentially assists include when 22-year-old Fernanda Maia took less than a second to throw a fresh ball to Sebastian Abreu leading to a Botafoga goal. Maia became something of a hero in Brazil.
At the other end of the pitch, 12-year-old Aussie ballboy Stephen White was credited with helping China’s goalkeeper save a Saudi penalty in the 2012 Asia Cup. He flicked his hand to the side he felt the striker was focusing on after the keeper had asked him jokingly which way he should dive.
“In the first 15 minutes I read the strikers. Because I am a keeper myself,” White explained. China went on to win.
It’s not unusual for ballboys to show off their own skills. There was the Barça kid who trapped a ball on the sideline like Messi. And this Portsmouth ballboy, who, rather than make the effort to get up, returns the ball with a header. Low-energy, but effective.
There have been plenty of feel-good ballboy moments too . Sadio Mané – one of the nicest men in football – made a boy’s day when he beckoned him over and threw his vest to him.
Kyle Walker teasing a United ballboy in 2018 didn’t go down well with certain sections of the crowd but amused the rest of us:
And at World Cup 2018, this Polish ballboy’s iconic mullet cheered the internet:
But perhaps most joyous of all was Duncan Ferguson swinging around of an Everton ballboy – complete with kisses – during his recent caretaker time in charge.
There are downsides, however. As well as contending with sometimes aggressive players, there can be embarrassing, literal slip-ups; getting hit in the face (full marks here to Nicolò Barella, who immediately embraced a boy who suffered this painful fate); having to crawl around; and the weather can be dire. But there seems to be no shortage of volunteers.
Given the number of professional players and managers who, bib-shod, used to roam the sidelines (as well as those mentioned above there’s Bernardo Silva, Wayne Rooney and plenty more) it might well be that we see some of the above names crop up in future – this time on the pitch.