Daniel Ballard tipped as future of Northern Ireland defence as boss predicts loan move for Arsenal teenager
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has name-checked two players as the future of the nation's defence.
The boss has named his panel for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers in Estonia and Belarus, including six centre-halves.
The four senior central defenders have an average age of almost 35, backing up O'Neill's point that developing younger options is a priority.
The retiring Aaron Hughes and his fellow 39-year-old Gareth McAuley are likely to provide the back-up to favoured central pairing Jonny Evans (31) and Craig Cathcart (30) in next month's games.
But as he announced his squad, O'Neill explained that it's the fifth and sixth names that he must look to push forward.
There's particular excitement around 19-year-old Arsenal player Daniel Ballard, while Sunderland's Tom Flanagan, at 27, is a comparative spring chicken alongside the likes of Hughes and McAuley.
With Ballard yet to feature in a senior Arsenal squad, O'Neill reckons a loan move could be next in line for the Stevenage man's development.
"Daniel's shown up really well in training," he said. "You're looking at a boy that again was only playing in our Under 19s just over a year ago. He's played regularly in Arsenal's Under 23s this season.
"The next stage for Daniel is probably a loan move.
"Again we have two great servants in our squad but they're not going to go on forever.
"When we look down the pipeline, we have Tom Flanagan at Sunderland and then Daniel. That's a position that we're not particularly strong in outside of Jonny (Evans) and Craig (Cathcart)
"That's where we need to push the likes of Daniel and these other young players through into the environment where they can come and play at international level."
O'Neill also handed a first call-up to Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes, who has impressed in two training camps in Manchester.
"If you look at our squad, we have eight of the previous Under 21 squad now," said O'Neill, emphasising the changing structure of his panel. "That's where we are in terms of experience.
"We still have a core group of experienced players. There's 14 of this squad that were at the Euros but the squad has become significantly younger in the last 18 months.
"We are asking players to possibly step up a little bit quicker than we'd like to but the thing is they've showed up well when they've been in with us. This is all part of their development. If needed, they're going to have to step up if they go onto the pitch."
Belfast Telegraph Digital