The ‘second ball’ gets a bad rep. Largely because it’s most common usage can be heard bellowed on any council pitch on a Sunday morning – though the meaning has been lost in translation. Its Sunday morning definition is more of a cry for help than a deliberate strategy and is code for ‘I’m too intoxicated/unfit/unprepared to challenge for this, someone do it for me’.
Not that there isn’t a degree of failure in the professional definition of ‘second ball’. Essentially you’re working on the theory that you haven’t won, or perhaps were never going to win, the ‘first ball’ – a free kick, throw-in, goal kick or just a direct punt downfield.
The power in the second ball is trying to turn that initial defeat into a success. And quickly. It makes some sense, too. Teams work on defending set pieces regularly, so the ‘first ball’ is often very familiar and swatted away easily. But the second ball is not so easily defended or anticipated. And not every player possesses the necessary anticipation to turn it to their advantage.
One skilled exponent of the second ball was our very own Kevin Nolan, so much so that he achieves his own paragraphs in Jonathan Wilson’s ‘The Mixer’ where Wilson recaps Sam Allardyce’s brutal assessment of his then-teenage centre back as having the inability to tackle or head effectively.
But Nolan possessed an almost innate understanding of where and when the ball will drop. Allardyce used this quality to devastating effect by pushing Nolan forward into midfield, in the hope of him capitalising on the bits and pieces left from the aerial bombardment caused by Michael Ricketts or Kevin Davies. Eight goals in his first Premier League campaign set the tone for a career that owed a lot to Nolan reacting the quickest to bobbling balls and defence being quickly turned to attack.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising to find Nolan liking Ryan Yates. The big but mobile midfielder offers more than a passing resemblance to Nolan, though sitting perhaps a little deeper than his manager ever did.
From Yates’ two competitive matches for Notts, the teenager has shown that same instinct in turning possession over, often decisively. His goal against Scunthorpe came from a lost header in the box, with Yates in the right place to win it back and score. And anyone thinking that was an odd one out should see his goal vs Brighton on the FA Youth Cup from last season. Against Chesterfield, Yates often gathered up the stray balls left over from the double (and sometimes triple) marked Shola Ameobi and reacted quickest to some poor set pieces, before Grant took over the dead-ball responsibilities.
Without Yates, Notts are far more one-dimensional, reliant on the lottery of balls whacked up to Stead or Ameobi that teams are prepped for as soon as they see their names on the team sheet. But with Yates, as the ball inevitably comes off the front two, the rest of the midfield are already primed and ready to have it back, thinking about their next pass. And that proactive thinking could make all the difference this season.
Photo by Andy Stokes