Northern Ireland centre-back Daniel Ballard is set for another pivotal week in his fledgling career, with a play-off trip to Wembley followed by yet another international call-up.
An Arsenal academy graduate, Ballard has spent the season on loan with League One Blackpool.
The 21-year-old’s first foray into senior football with Swindon Town in 2019-20 ended after just three games and a serious knee injury, so there was a bit of pressure on him to prove his worth at the start of the current campaign.
Perhaps understandably, the young defender took a little while to find consistency with Blackpool. After winning a couple of early man of the match awards, he found himself suspended following an avoidable red card and had to work his way back into the side.
Then there was a minor injury setback in December and a Covid-related absence in January, all of which conspired to leave him without a run of more than four consecutive games by mid-February.
Yet there were plenty of positives, even in those opening months. Blackpool had kept a few clean sheets with Ballard in the team, and the primary source of encouragement was that he was simultaneously breaking into the Northern Ireland national side.
Since making his senior debut against Romania in September, Ballard has appeared at least once in every international break. He never really looks out of place even against high-quality opponents, starring against Erling Haaland and Norway in October.
Inspired by the faith of his national team, the Arsenal loanee really kicked on in the second half of the campaign. He scored his first Blackpool goal in March, amid a run of eight games and five clean sheets leading up to the March internationals. He returned to finish the regular season with nine consecutive starts and a push up the table into the play-off places.
With promotion on the line, Ballard helped his team to a win in the semi-final first leg clash with Oxford, before providing an excellent headed assist in the second leg. That game took him to 29 Blackpool appearances for the season, and 15 clean sheets. The only concern will be that he came off with a groin injury.
Blackpool are still hopeful Ballard will return in time for the play-off final against Lincoln City tomorrow. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland have called him up to join the squad ahead of their friendly against Ukraine the following Thursday. It’s a sign of his importance to both sides that the knock hasn’t put them off lining him up for further starts.
The young defender is universally loved among Blackpool supporters, who are keen to see him return again next season. If they achieve promotion to the Championship, that possibility is certainly on the cards, but Ballard may even get a chance with Arsenal in pre-season.
The Gunners have had quite a bit of turnover at the back in 2021, with David Luiz set to follow Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos out the door this summer. With Ballard making waves on loan, he could well be in line to take advantage of his parent club’s defensive uncertainty.