Interview: Millwall’s on-loan Arsenal defender on two major career setbacks and perspective

DANIEL Ballard has two missed calls on his phone as well as a voicemail.

“Hello, mate,” the text back reads a few minutes later. “Sorry, just woken up! You still okay for a chat?”

NewsAtDen had scheduled an interview with Millwall defender Ballard for 4pm last Tuesday and he’s shaking off the grogginess when he eventually answers the phone half an hour later.

“Sorry about that, I fell asleep around half two and I didn’t think I’d still be sleeping by four.”

The immediate impression is Ballard takes things in his stride.

As a player he is a composed and calm figure. He’s comfortable on the ball, whether playing long diagonal passes or stepping forward into space to look for a pass to the feet of an attacker.

And he speaks in a calm, laid-back manner, though there is no mistaking his steely focus and determination.

He’s asked if that steady nature is one of his best attributes.

“I’d like to say so,” he agrees. “But that’s always something I’ve had to work on throughout my career, stuff on the ball.

“I’ve always found defending and being aggressive has come really naturally to me and I’ve always enjoyed that.

“What I’ve had to do is try and add the stuff on the ball, especially coming up through Arsenal and the way they want to play, play out from the back.

“The way Arsenal play now I have to be comfortable on the ball if I was to ever go back there.

“I’d like to say that’s an area that has improved massively but I want to keep working on it and improving it.”

Despite being only 22 – his birthday was last Wednesday – Ballard has experienced contrasting swings of fortune in a career that looked over before it had started when he was let go by Arsenal at under-16 level.

He went to Southampton on trial but broke his ankle. But in a remarkable twist, and just as he was about to sign a scholarship deal with his hometown club Stevenage who appeared to be the only club interested in him, Gunners academy boss Andries Jonker called. The under-18s were short a centre-back and Jonker asked him what his situation was and if he could go to Germany to play in a friendly against Bayern Munich.

Ballard couldn’t turn down a chance that is almost unheard of for a player that has been released.

After impressing in the game, just months after he thought his dream was over, Jonker offered him a scholarship on the flight home.

Ballard agrees the memory of that time is a daily motivation.

“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “I think about that moment, how tough I found it. Growing up it was my dream to play football.

“I never quite thought I would be in the position I am now and I’m only here because I’ve worked really hard.

“I was in a position where no team wanted me so to be playing every week in the Championship is a big turnaround.

“I certainly don’t forget how I’ve got here and what it was like three or four years ago when times were very different.

“Andries Jonker gave me the chance to come back. He always really believed in me when no one else did and if it wasn’t for him I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now.

“It was a tough period at that time. You go from being an Arsenal player to having absolutely nothing.

“You realise you’re on your own, almost. My family were really good, really understanding. They helped me out massively. You find out who’s really in your life and my family and friends were massive.”

Daniel Ballard scored his first Millwall goal against West Brom

Ballard made the first loan move of his career to experience senior football at Swindon. But again bad luck struck as he suffered a knee injury and was out for five months.

That took him into early 2020 before Covid-19 hit the UK and football was suspended in March.

It meant that he went more than a year without playing a game of competitive football.

But in another remarkable turning point in his young career, his first match in 13 months – between a 3-0 defeat to Colchester with Swindon in August 2019 and September 2020 – was his international debut for Northern Ireland in a Nations League game in Romania, a 1-1 draw.

Then within the space of a week he had twice faced one of the most fearsome forwards in the world, Norway’s phenomenon Erling Braut Haaland, who has averaged a goal a game for his country and Borussia Dortmund since the start of the 2019-20 season. Haaland scored twice in the first game but was kept quiet in the second and failed to find the net.

Ballard again used the experience of his release by Arsenal for perspective while he had no competitive football.

“That was probably the second biggest challenge I’ve had,” Ballard says. “With Covid I didn’t play a game of football in a year. That’s a long time to be out of the game and there were a lot of challenging moments in that.

“Of course it was extremely difficult but I looked back on the time that I was released and used that as motivation to keep going.

“My first full 90 minutes was my international debut. It was pretty surreal.”

The defender comes across as a laid-back but determined character

A month later, League One Blackpool signed Ballard on a season-long loan. Ballard played 30 times including the 2-1 play-off final win against Lincoln at Wembley.

Would he agree Blackpool took a punt on him after he had played so little club football?

“I’d say definitely they took a punt,” he replies. “I hadn’t played in a long time so I was pretty grateful they did that because I was really struggling for a loan move.

“I wanted to go out and play and be involved again. I had a great time there.”

Blackpool wanted him on loan again for this season’s Championship campaign, but Ballard was ready for a new challenge.

Ahead of the trip to Nottingham Forest this weekend, he has started all eight league games and would probably have played every minute but for a cut close to his eye forcing him off in the 70th minute against Swansea.

He admits he is slightly surprised he has become a regular in Gary Rowett’s team so quickly.

“I was going there because I wanted to play, but they had lots of experienced, top defenders,” Ballard says of his decision to join Millwall. “As soon as I got there I saw the standard was high and I knew I would have to work hard to show the manager I’m a good player.

“If I’m not doing that there are a lot of other people who can step in. I was probably quite surprised, I definitely didn’t think I’d have played this number of games and sort of made this position my own at the moment.

“I’m really pleased with the start but if I were to take my foot off the gas I’m sure someone would come in straightaway and replace me.

“It’s up to me to keep doing what I’m doing and working hard because we’ve got a really good squad.”

Ballard will continue to take things in his determined stride.

Image: Millwall FC

John Kelly