'Leader' Ballard relishing added NI responsibility

6 months ago 153
Dan BallardBallard took over from Jonny Evans as captain against San Marino
Venue: Olympic Stadium, Helsinki Date: Friday, 17 November Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Ulster; live text and report on BBC Sport website; highlights on BBC One NI

Dan Ballard feels he is ready to take on added responsibility in a Northern Ireland squad that is missing experienced defenders.

The Sunderland centre-half, 24, will likely play in a defence missing Jonny Evans through injury and the recently-retired Craig Cathcart.

Ballard has won 20 international caps after making his debut three years ago.

"Yes, potentially," he said when asked if he needs to step up with Evans and Cathcart missing.

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"We've got some great young centre-halves so there's always going to be good competition there.

"But, yes, missing those two players speaks for itself. They probably have nearly 200 caps between them, so that's a lot of experience missing.

"It's down to us to step up and fill the void they have left."

With captain Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson already out with long-term injuries, Manchester United defender Evans added to that list of senior players when he was forced to pull out of Michael O'Neill's squad at the weekend with a thigh strain.

Ballard has played alongside either Evans or Cathcart - or both - in nearly all of his senior Northern Ireland appearances, and realises there is an onus on him to step up in their absence.

"I think so and I think that will show in performances on the pitch," said Ballard ahead of Northern Ireland's Euro 2024 qualifier double-header away to Finland on Friday and at home to Denmark on Monday.

"We want the manager and the fans to trust us and the only way we can do that is through good performances on the pitch."

He added: "I've been quite fortunate to play with Craig and Jonny, and before that playing or training with Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley.

"I've had a lot of experience and I've learnt a lot from them, it has been a great time for me."

'I have good leadership skills'

Dan Ballard and Jonny EvansBallard took over from Jonny Evans as captain when Evans went off against San Marino

With an extensive injury plight that has significantly impacted his selection options throughout this qualifying campaign, NI manager O'Neill has had to turn to a lot of young players.

Youngsters such as Shea Charles, Conor Bradley, Isaac Price, Trai Hume, Dale Taylor and Callum Marshall have all been regulars in the squad, with most having significant game time.

Although only 24 himself, Ballard realises that it is not just his place in the Northern Ireland defence that has been elevated, but also the importance of his status within the squad as a whole.

"I know we have got a younger team now so maybe I've transitioned from one of the younger players to someone with a few more caps," he explained.

"Especially with the younger boys coming through now, I feel like I have got to take it upon myself to help those ones with a few less caps than me. So, yeah, I am probably taking up more of an experienced role."

With Davis, Evans and Dallas all injured, and Cathcart no longer available, O'Neill has a decision to make about who captains his side against the Finns and the Danes.

Evans handed Ballard the armband when he went off injured during the home win over San Marino last month and, although not asked directly about the captaincy, Ballard backed himself as a leader.

"Yes I think so," he said when asked if he has leadership qualities.

"We are a young team at club football so coming away doesn't feel like it is a young team or anything.

"Of course, I would love to help any player if they need it. I feel I have got good leadership skills on the pitch and hopefully that can rub off on some others."

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