IT is fitting that Kevin Ball was born in Hastings. By accepting a role as Sunderland's caretaker boss following the unexpected departure of Mick McCarthy, the fans' favourite has already underlined his fondness for a battle.

While most managerial hopefuls would have run a mile had they been asked to take charge of a club careering towards relegation, Ball was still bubbling when he slipped into the manager's chair at the Academy of Light yesterday.

Brash and ebullient, 15 minutes in his company was enough to dispel any suggestion that leading Sunderland is the ultimate in thankless tasks.

To Ball, is it is something of a dream come true, but then the 41-year-old already enjoys a Wearside love affair that has stood the test of time.

After making 389 appearances for the club in the 1990s, the fierce but fair midfielder is a living legend in Sunderland. The king is dead, so long live the king - and few rulers command such instant authority and respect as the Black Cats' latest leader.

Few are as widely admired either and, while Ball is unlikely to arrest Sunderland's headlong charge to the Championship, he should ensure the club at least departs with a semblance of its pride intact. Given everything that has happened at the Stadium of Light this season, that would be an achievement in itself.

"When I first came to Sunderland in 1990 - when Dennis Smith brought me to the club - I didn't even realise it was by the coast," said Ball, who will meet his players for the first time this morning after allowing the dust to settle yesterday. "Over the subsequent years, it came to be a club and a set of supporters I felt I had a great affinity with.

"In my first season at the club, I came to understand the passion of the people. That was a passion that I enjoyed and got off on as a player.

"As a player, there's nothing better than hearing the supporters shouting your name and getting behind you 100 per cent.

"I was the type of player that liked a tackle and, when you're doing that, there's nothing better than knowing you've got the fans on your side.

"Over the course of the years, my love for the club has grown. I've had some great times here but, importantly, I've also gone through the highs and lows of everything as well.

"I've had disappointments with relegation, enjoyments with championships, the drama of a play-off final and flirtations with all kinds of other stuff. I think Sunderland have given me every high and low that a player could experience, and every feeling a supporter could go through as well.

"Now I'm going to experience it as a manager and that makes me ever so proud."

Needless to say pride is an emotion that has been in staggeringly short supply this season.

Sunderland's fortunes have plummeted to the extent that McCarthy's permanent successor could yet inherit a side saddled with the tag of being the worst in Premiership history. As if that was not bad enough, he is also unlikely to have any money with which to kick-start a revival.

Restoring the club to the its former glory will be a lengthy labour of love, something that inevitably appeals to Ball.

With the memory of McCarthy's departure still fresh, the caretaker was understandably reluctant to discuss his long-term ambitions yesterday. Given his symbiotic relationship with Sunderland, though, "I want it" were words that were not required to be said.

"Even as a player, I've always said that my dream was to be manager of Sunderland," said Ball. "One day, I always hoped I'd get the opportunity to manage this football club.

"Its something I've said for years, but I guess sometimes things happen when you least expect it.

"This opportunity came on Monday and, if I'm honest, its something I probably hoped might happen eventually, three or four years down the line.

"As for my long-term future, though, that is a question I simply can't answer. All I can do is give it everything I can between now and the end of the season. What happens then is down the board.

"If I do well enough to stake a claim, so be it. But, if things don't go as well I would like, I might even come out and say that this isn't for me.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen. By the end of the season, I might be saying, 'I've absolutely loved it and I'm desperate for the job.' But I also might be saying, 'This ain't for me'. That remains to be seen."

Hardly a statement of disinterest but, if Ball is to turn the current temporary arrangement into a permanent one, he will have to produce the kind of progress that eluded McCarthy.

Glenn Roeder has shown how effective a change can be at Newcastle but, while Graeme Souness exhibited obvious flaws, McCarthy's failings were as much down to the limitations of the players under his control as the effect of any personal weaknesses.

Jon Stead is not going to turn into a 20-goal-a-season-striker overnight but Ball remains confident he can affect some sort of a change. If he can, it will be led from the front.

Stuart Pearce has already converted his heart-on-the-sleeve playing style into a winning blend of touchline histrionics and unexpectedly astute nous. With his UEFA A Licence programme almost complete, Ball is confident of allying attitude to acumen with equally effective results.

"The one thing I share with Stuart is that I wear my heart on my sleeve," he said. "We are what we are and we can't change that. I think it's important you don't try to change just because you have stepped into a different role.

"I'll carry on being the same character and personality that I am. I'm sure I'll be with the players kicking, heading and tackling every ball in the game, that's just the way I am.

"You can't be one of the lads any more though. It's important you establish that distance and I'm sure they'll respect that.

"But we're in this together. I want the players to get behind me and the fans to get behind the players. By Saturday, it's important that this football club is presenting a united front."

With Ball at the helm, anything else is unthinkable. With relegation all but assured, one battle is already over. At three o'clock on Saturday, though, another one will be about to begin.

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