Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has said that the new, young faces, that include Arsenal’s Daniel Ballard, are helping to ‘freshen things up’ around the squad.
On Tuesday, Ballard was included in a 27-man squad for Northern Ireland’s upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus. It’s the Arsenal academy star’s first senior national call-up, and it comes before he’s even been called up for Arsenal’s senior squad.
Speaking ahead of the games, O’Neill said, when asked if he knows his starting XI and if this game will be a test of his squad’s depth, “It is.
“I know my team. There were one or two decisions to make at the start of the week. You have to go into players’ history in how they have been for you at international level. Players can leave their club situation behind.
“The depth of the squad is going to be tested -we know it’s not particularly deep but it gives players opportunity – perhaps to younger players. The younger guys have freshened things up, so that’s good.”
Ballard’s selection was surprising to some, but O’Neill explained a few days ago, “He’s a young centre-back who was with our Under-19s last year with Stephen Frail and did very well,” said O’Neill.
“We have promoted him to the Under-21 squad and he’s playing regularly for Arsenal at Under-23 level. We are bringing him in for the experience but it’s also an indication of where we are as Gareth (McAuley) and Aaron (Hughes) aren’t going to go on forever.
“Neither are playing regularly and it’s important to bring Daniel in because in the next 12 to 18 months he has the potential to be a regular fixture in the squad.
“He’s young and he’s raw but competitive. He likes to attack the ball, he’s a good defender and he’s shown good character. Arsenal were a bit undecided about him 12 months ago but they decided to keep him and he’s done well in that period.
“He has been very good in our Under-19 ranks and, like Paul Smyth, Jordan Thompson and Gavin Whyte, we believe in promoting players and seeing them grow with us in a developing squad. You have to hope it helps their club careers because if that’s going in the right direction it makes life easier for us in terms of selection.”
Ballard has performed well for the Arsenal u23s this season. He’d only made a single appearance for the top academy side before the start of this campaign, captaining the u18s to the FA Youth Cup final in 2017/18. However, he’s done well making the step up, and it does seem like only a matter of time until he gets a first-team opportunity.
Unfortunately, he’s had Zech Medley alongside him breaking through at the same time, and Medley was the one who ended up getting the emergency call-up when Arsenal were low on centre-backs earlier in the season.
The former Chelsea youth defender had the advantage of being completely physically ready for first-team football, so perhaps Unai Emery thought he was a better option for promotion. Still, on this season’s form, Ballard would’ve made an equally good choice.
As expected, O’Neill confirmed that this call-up is mostly for the experience. The opportunity to work with a new bunch of senior players for a couple of weeks can only be a good thing for the 19-year-old though.