If there’s one thing every Northern Ireland fan would want for Christmas, then a 21-year-old Jonny Evans wouldn’t be far from the top of the list.
It’s welcome news, then, that the man that arguably knows Daniel Ballard’s fledgling career better than anybody else reckons the Arsenal youngster has what it takes to emulate his international team-mate.
Ian Baraclough’s regular centre-half pairing of Evans and Craig Cathcart are both the far side of 30, leaving supporters with the inevitable question; what next?
While Paddy McNair and George Saville, helped by youthful duo Alfie McCalmont and Ethan Galbraith, have provided hope that there is life after Steven Davis in midfield, centre-half had long provided a point of pre-emptive concern.
That was until Arsenal scout Brian Stapleton helped notify the Irish FA of Stevenage-born Ballard’s Northern Irish mother Gill and his availability for the national teams.
Caps at Under 19 and Under 21 level helped pave the way for last month’s senior debut against Romania, soon followed by starts home and away against Norway and their fearsome forward Erling Haaland.
His starring role alongside Evans in the narrow 1-0 defeat in Oslo has helped convince the Green and White Army that part of the central defence of the future has finally arrived.
For Stapleton, who brought the defender to Arsenal after a chance meeting at a park in Stevenage, the realisation was only ever a matter of time.
“Daniel can go right to the top,” he says, in a thick London accent, assured in every word. “He can be another Jonny Evans. He will get a career out of the game and he’ll play in the Premier League, all day long. Without a shadow of a doubt, he has got that in his locker.
“Whether that is at Arsenal is another matter because it’s so rare that the top clubs put young kids in at centre-half. They don’t really take that gamble.
“Dan proved what he can do up against Haaland, one of the top prospects in the world, and Arsenal definitely think he’s got a chance. He needs a run of games injury-free on loan at Blackpool and go from there. There’s no better experience than what he’s getting with Northern Ireland and he has already carried that into Blackpool.”
Ballard made his League One debut for the Tangerines on Tuesday when he came on as a fourth minute substitute and was named the club’s man of the match despite a 1-0 home defeat to Charlton.
It’s only his second appearance in senior league football; his first over a year ago during a loan at Swindon Town that was cruelly ended before it could really begin by a serious knee injury.
It’s no surprise, as Stapleton will tell you, that such a set-back proved little more than a bump in the road.
The scout worked for 13 years at Arsenal, under former Academy Director Liam Brady as well as Northern Irishman and the Gunners' ex-Head of Youth Scouting Steve Morrow. During that time, he created links with the likes of Norwich’s Barcelona-tracked full-back Max Aarons, Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho and former Liverpool forward Rhian Brewster.
And yet, for his mentality, Ballard stands out among an esteemed crowd.
“I’ve worked with a lot of players, but none of them have got the determination that Daniel Ballard has got,” Stapleton says.
“Daniel’s got everything. He’s like a Tony Adams type character; he’ll die for the cause. He’s got the biggest heart I’ve ever come across in football for a kid, and he has had a lot of knock-backs in his life.”
When he turned 18, Ballard had already defied being released by Arsenal twice to sign a professional contract at the Emirates, which has now been extended until 2023.
On the first occasion he was ‘let go’, he hadn’t even left the room by the time his exit was cancelled.
“That was when he was 14,” recalls Stapleton. “He had a lot of injuries when he was at the Academy and had growing pains so he had lost a lot of time.
“Liam Brady had already decided he was going to let Daniel go so I said I’d go along to support him. He’s such a great kid, I wanted to be there for him when he was getting his knock-backs.
“When Liam told him that he was being let go, he was absolutely devastated.
“But then Liam changed his mind on the spot. He said he had never seen a kid so distraught after being told he was being released by Arsenal.
“Most just sort of accept it but Liam had never come across somebody like Dan so gave him another two years. We couldn’t believe it.”
That seemed to be only a stay of execution when, two years later, Ballard was formally released.
“Soon after that he broke his ankle, which put him well down the list for other clubs,” Stapleton picks up. “A trial at Southampton fell through because of the injury and then when he recovered, his local club Stevenage came in and he was on the verge of signing.
“Then Arsenal, out of the blue, rang him and asked did he want to go to Germany with them for a tour. Being honest, it was because they were short of players. So he had to decide whether to sign for Stevenage or take the risk and go with Arsenal, hoping they might offer him a contract.
“He decided himself to take that chance, was outstanding in the game and got offered a deal. It was crazy. It was a massive gamble but he took it and the rest is history.”
It’s been a long road since that day in the park in Stevenage, where a sideward glance turned into a 13 year stay – and counting – at one of England’s biggest clubs.
“I actually went to watch another player that day,” laughs Stapleton. “I turned to my left and there was another game going on over on the other pitch.
“I saw this lad dominating the game. Dan must have been seven because he was actually an Under 8 but he was playing a year up at Under 9 and was still the best player on the pitch.
“At the end of the game, I asked the manager about him and it went from there. He came into Arsenal and he’s still there today.”
From that day, through all the ups and downs, Stapleton has stuck by Northern Ireland’s newest defensive star.
And it’s a loyalty that goes both ways, proven by Ballard’s decision to present his shirt from his Northern Ireland debut to his old mentor.
“When he arrived with the shirt, I can’t explain how much it meant,” said Stapleton. “It makes everything worthwhile when you get a knock at the door from a boy you’ve been with since such a young age and he turns up with his first international shirt for you.
“It was so emotional and it’s now pride of place in everything I’ve achieved as a scout. That’s the sort of kid Daniel is.”
His character is clear, and now Daniel Ballard is showing that he has the ability to match.
It’s music to the ears of every Northern Ireland fan.