Daniel Ballard looks to be on his way to becoming a regular in the Northern Ireland set-up after two very strong performances in the UEFA Nations League.
The Stevenage born central defender had the difficult job of filling the Jonny Evans shaped void in the heart of the Northern Ireland defence, and although he wasn’t at the same level Northern Ireland fans come to expect of Jonny Evans, he did a better job than many predicted.
Going into the Romania game it looked like Paddy McNair would play alongside Craig Cathcart in the heart of the defence, maybe even Michael Smith would be in the running. Baraclough, however, put faith in the 21-year-old and Ballard rewarded him for his faith.
When you take a look at the defensive side of the Northern Ireland set-up it isn’t exactly the best in terms of squad depth. Evans and Cathcart provide a strong centre-back pairing with Dallas and Lewis in the full-back spots.
Outside of Evans and Cathcart, you have Ballard, Tom Flannagan and Ciaron Brown, and although these defenders are solid options, when one gets injured they all do and this leaves Northern Ireland short at the back.
I would really like to see Ballard get more opportunities to start for Northern Ireland as I think he has a lot of potential. Cathcart didn’t have the best of international matches against Romania and Norway, but he has provided some memorable nights in the past and the pressure of having to lead the defence was something that he hasn’t often done.
Ballard is the current captain of the Arsenal Under-23 team and he is really in a position to make the step up to the first team within the next season or two. He has the quality, the strength and the awareness. He also has the potential, and if he can continue to grow and develop as a player, there is no reason why he can’t become a regular in the Arsenal set-up.
I do think it will be difficult for him to get into the Arsenal set-up within the next year as they have signed a few quality players in those positions. I would like to see him get a move to a Championship or League One club to really test his ability. He went on loan to Swindon Town last season but got injured early into the season and never got to show his potential in those leagues.
Ballard is a future Northern Ireland star in my opinion and I do think he is a long term replacement for Evans. If he can impress with Arsenal and get the opportunities to play in the first team then I do think he will be pushing Cathcart for the second starting spot in the heart of the defence.