2016 was a whirlwind year for talented defender Daniel Ballard after being released and then resigned by the club in a move he described as unheard of.
Having initially been released from Arsenal’s youth ranks as a schoolboy, the teenager refused to give up and managed to earn himself a two-year scholarship deal against the odds.
A trial at Southampton ended in agony when the centre back broke his ankle, before he returned to the Gunners for rehabilitation. After a swift recovery from this setback, he went back to familiar roots with Stevenage, where he was born and raised. They offered him scholarship terms to join their academy, but Andries Jonker called him to ask whether he’d be interested in featuring for the u18s in a friendly match against Bayern Munich.
If successful, there was a chance that he’d be taken on as a scholar – something that is extremely rare, especially within big youth academies such as Arsenal.
“I couldn’t go on trial anywhere or train with other clubs and it looked like the injury had put an end to my hopes,” Ballard said.
“The good news was that I recovered quite quickly and in the summer, I was able to start playing again and going on trials. I had gone to Stevenage, which is where I am originally from. Stevenage liked me as a player and had offered me a scholarship which I was happy about.
“Then I got a call from Andries Jonker at Arsenal.
“He told me he wanted me to come along with the under-18s to play in a friendly game against Bayern Munich. He said if things went well there was a possibility that I’d be taken on.
“That never happens.”
Understandably, there was plenty of scepticism about Ballard’s decision from his family and friends, but he said that something within him told him to go. On the flight home from the friendly itself, Jonker revealed he was impressed by the 17-year-old’s defensive display, the way he conducted himself, and offered him a scholarship on the spot.
“Many people around me were sceptical and telling me not to go because I may have just been making up the numbers and I could risk losing everything offered to me at Stevenage.
“Something inside me was telling me to go.
“Possibly because I’d been rejected by Arsenal before and they changed their minds previously. When I was 14, a lot of players were released from the Hale End academy at the end of the season.
“I met with Liam Brady and he presented me with my documents saying I was being let go and I wouldn’t get another two years with Arsenal as a schoolboy.
“It was the best flight ever,” Ballard continued. “The other lads were really pleased for me but were shocked at the same time. No-one has known Arsenal to change their minds after releasing a player and no-one could believe it.”
Rightly so too, especially given everything that he had to overcome before getting a second opportunity to showcase his ability.
On how his football is progressing since that unforgettable journey, Ballard revealed the fact that he featured in all of the u18s’ first five matches of the current campaign. Training on a full-time basis with his team-mates has also helped him develop into more of a complete player, which is no surprise given the amount of hours spent improving on the training ground as well as the extra gym work he would’ve done on a weekly basis to strengthen physically.
“I feel a lot more confident. I’m really enjoying this challenge and I’m focused on becoming the best I can be and the improvement I have made in these last few months has encouraged me even more,” he added.
Ballard, who supported Chelsea as a boy and revealed his admiration for John Terry in his younger years, identified the fact that he still has extra work to do before he can dream about securing a professional contract in 2018.
Although tackling is one of Daniel’s main strengths, he admitted that he needs to improve his level of acceleration in future if he’s to have much success with attempted recovery challenges and well-timed tackles under pressure from forwards – who are getting quicker all the time.