Daniel Ballard must be feeling the love right now at Arsenal. And rightly so. Because the Gunners academy product is, seemingly, getting the full reward for his industry of late. Perhaps Ballard, a highly-rated 19-year-old central defender, thought it couldn’t get much better a couple of months back when he got the nod and was named in Northern Ireland’s senior squad.
But following a series of wonderful displays for the Gunners in Premier League 2 this season, there has been more celebrations in the Ballard household with the news that he has penned a contract extension with Unai Emery’s outfit. The Spanish head coach, currently preparing the first team for their Europa League cup final tonight (Wednesday) against Chelsea in Baku, Azerbaijan, wasn’t even at the club when Ballard signed on as at the tender age of just eight.
He certainly has the qualities needed to make the grade, believe the Arsenal coaching staff and hierarchy, and it was no surprise when he signed as a scholar in the summer of 2016. Then, in June last year, he was handed his first professional contract.
Now, he says, his objective is to make the leap to be involved in the first team squad — and he cites the help, advice and coaching of former Gunners ace Freddie Ljungberg (now head coach of the Arsenal U23 team) as crucial to his development and progress.
Speaking to the club’s official website, Ballard said:
“It’s been a very long season and I’ve worked really hard for this moment. All the emotions have come in one day and I’m really excited. I’ve worked very hard for this and I’m looking forward to the years to come at Arsenal. I think I’ve grown a lot, especially from the start. I think I found it tough coming into the under-23s, but I’ve learnt so much under Freddie and towards the end of the season I think it started to show, and I was happy with my performances.
“I need to continue to develop. I’m not sure on the plans for next season, but I want to push towards the first team as soon as possible. It would be a dream to play for Arsenal, so that’s a goal I can work towards over the next few years now.”
In particular, says Ballard, ex-Sweden attacker Ljungberg — capped by his country 75 times — has helped the youngster with his work on the ball, adding:
“My technique, when to pass, what decisions to make and I’ve learnt so much during this time with him. I think that’s been the major thing that’s improved, and then obviously my defending and knowledge of the game continues to get better.”
Ballard has also spoken of his pride at the international call-up which came when he was included in a 27-strong group selected for the games against Estonia and Belarus in the opening fixtures of the Euro 2020 qualifiers. He said:
“That was a proud moment for me. You learn so much going away with the seniors because they’re regular pros playing first-team football throughout the leagues, so you learn so much and you see how professional they are and the standard I need to get to.”