Belfast Telegraph

Who is Daniel Ballard? Everything you need to know about the Arsenal defender called up to Northern Ireland's senior squad

Arsenal's Daniel Ballard.
Arsenal's Daniel Ballard.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

There's a new name in the Northern Ireland squad as Arsenal's Daniel Ballard is included in the senior panel for the first time.

So just who is he?

Here's everything you need to know:

Who is Daniel Ballard?

Age: 19

Position: Centre-back

Place of birth: Stevenage

Northern Irish qualified: Through his mother, who is from Northern Ireland

Club history: Arsenal Academy

International experience: Ballard joined Northern Ireland's Under 18 panel back in 2017 and made the step up to the U21s last year, playing four games. He played in the famous 2-1 win in Spain and even hit the headlines with a last minute winning goal in Iceland. That set up a thrilling final group game at home to Slovakia, with Northern Ireland's hopes of UEFA U21 Championship qualification going down to the last match.

Dogged determination: It's taken plenty of that to get Ballard this far in his career, having been released from Arsenal's Academy as a schoolboy. He was then off to Southampton on trial but when that was ended by a broken ankle, his hopes of breaking through with a Premier League club were in tatters and a place in the academy at his hometown club Stevenage was all but rubber-stamped.

So how did he get back to Arsenal? One phonecall from Andries Jonker, the head of the Gunners' academy, changed everything. He was offered the opportunity to reverse the club's decision by featuring for the U18s in a friendly against Bayern Munich. Such was the level of his performance, he earned a two-year scholarship deal on the spot.

From reject to captain: In the second year of that contract, Ballard was made captain of the Arsenal side that reached the FA Youth Cup final. He had even scored in the semi-final victory over Blackpool to lead his troops into the decider against Chelsea, who would win the two-legged final.

Professional contract: Ballard's two-year deal ended in the summer of 2018 but, after his FA Youth Cup heroics, he was handed his first professional contract in June 2018, ten years on from first joining the club.

Waiting for a first team debut: Ballard has yet to make the breakthrough into Unai Emery's senior Arsenal squad but he has become an U23 regular this season, starting 13 Premier League 2 games for Freddie Ljungberg's side this season.

Fan favourite already: It seems Ballard has already won the admiration of the Arsenal support, with calls for him to be given an opportunity at first-team level. He's also been called a 'warrior at defence' and an 'absolute beast at the back' by the fans. Northern Ireland's GAWA will be hoping they're right.

Expert opinion: Dan Critchlow, who covers the Arsenal youth team for popular fan site the Daily Cannon, reckons there's a big future ahead for Ballard: "I was surprised earlier in the season when Zach Medley was called up to the first team because around the Academy, Ballard is the more highly-rated defender. I thought he would have made that first-team debut by now but I'd say, if he doesn't go out on loan, he will make that step next season maybe in the League Cup games. He's particularly good in the air - he has scored a couple of headed goals and is similarly impressive with his head at the other end of the pitch. Another thing he has become known for is goal-line clearances. There was a run in which he made four in five or six matches so he has that ability to read the game well."

What does he say about his own game? "I would describe myself as a Jonny Evans or a Gareth McAuley. I look up to these players, who have played a lot of games in the Premier League. At U19s or U21s, when I put on the green shirt, it's a feeling of pride. You want to do well for your country. To do it for the first team, would be amazing. It's always been a dream and I'll keep dreaming until it comes true."

What has Michael O'Neill said about his call-up? “He is a young centre back who has had a rapid rise with us. He is a player we are bringing in for experience. It is also an indication of where we are at right now. Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes won’t go on forever, and neither are playing regularly for their clubs. It was important to bring Daniel in because over the next 12-18 months he has the potential to be a regular fixture in the squad.”

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