MILLWALL are working on a deal to sign Arsenal defender Daniel Ballard and hope to see off interest from several Championship clubs to seal his signature on a season-long loan.
Ballard, 21, spent the last campaign at Blackpool where he made 28 league appearances, including in the play-off final, as the Tangerines achieved promotion to the Championship by beating Lincoln 2-1 at Wembley.
He is also a senior Northern Ireland international with five caps, after making his debut in September 2020 in a 1-1 draw against Romania in the Nations League.
Ballard, who was born in Stevenage, joined the Arsenal academy before signing his first professional deal in 2018.
He was on loan at Swindon in 2019-20, but that spell was cut short by a knee injury.
Ballard has trained with the senior squad under Gunners boss Mikel Arteta, after an eventful time underage when he was twice told he was going to be released.
The first time, then head of Arsenal’s academy, Liam Brady, had the release papers for the youngster but then changed his mind after a half an hour of their meeting.
Then, Ballard missed out on a scholarship and was on trial with Stevenage when Gunners academy manager Andries Jonker called him and said they needed a defender for a friendly against Bayern Munich. On the way home after that game, Jonker offered him a scholarship.
Ballard seems a grounded individual. When he made his debut for Northern Ireland he gave his shirt to Brian Stapleton, the scout who had spotted him when Ballard was seven.
“Brian’s been there since the start and has always helped me and my family with everything,” Ballard said in an interview with Goal last January.
“He’s someone I knew I could always turn to and he’d be there for me. He’s just a really genuine and good-hearted person.
“He actually went to watch a different tournament, but he didn’t find anyone so a load of parents ushered him over to where we were playing.
“I thought I had a terrible game. I got in the car and started crying my eyes out, but then my dad told me I was going for trials with Arsenal. I just thought he was trying to cheer me up.”
Ballard described his struggles at Arsenal as he tried to make the grade.
“Technically and physically, I felt like I was getting left behind. I always felt I was falling behind the standard.
“Liam took me in a meeting at under-14s and told me he was giving me my release papers. I just burst out crying, it was like my whole world had come to an end.
“We spoke for a while and after about half an hour he just changed his mind and never gave me the release papers.
“He said I could stay and that there was new management coming in. He said take two years and try and impress them.”
Ballard also spoke in that interview about going out on loan.
He said: “I think it’s important that you really experience what it’s like away from Arsenal. I feel like a Blackpool player which I think it’s really important.
“It’s been really tough and the amount of games is hard to deal with. There are no easy games. You could be playing bottom of the league, but the quality isn’t any different from playing mid-table or even top of the league because you have to be a very good, well rounded professional to play at this level.
“There are no weak spots a lot of the time and everyone works their bollocks off. It’s pretty relentless.”
Ballard has experienced one of the toughest tests for any defender in world football currently – facing Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland.
In their match report, BBC Sport said Ballard “looked assured in a back three” despite Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat in Norway.
“Haaland was pretty tough,” Ballard, who played on the right side of the defence, said. “He’s like 6’4”, but he’s fast which is not a combination you usually see. So it’s pretty intimidating coming up against him.
“He’s got that aggression, that hunger. He won’t let you have an easy game and it’s nice playing against players like that because they give you the best challenges and it gives you the motivation to go away and prove yourself
“Obviously the first game he scored two goals, but I think in the away leg we did really well to stop him from doing anything really.”
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