Northern Ireland's new Lion Daniel Ballard 'roaring' to go in Lithuania

Northern Ireland defender Daniel Ballard challenging for the ball against Bulgaria in March's World Cup 2022 qualifier. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

GIVEN his Christian name and the club he's now playing for, it's not surprising that Daniel Ballard remains cool despite the prospect of pressure.

Admittedly, Lithuania isn't a daunting destination for tomorrow night's World Cup qualifier, never mind a 'lions' den', but the absence of Northern Ireland's senior centre half Jonny Evans due to injury does raise the concern levels somewhat.

Not for Ballard, though, who is relishing becoming a regular after his senior debut away to Romania almost exactly a year ago.

"There are always going to be injuries, players won't always be available. It's a good opportunity to step up and take more responsibility, try and help the team as much as possible when great players aren't available. Maybe that's something that the team has to deal with, we'll all have to step up that little bit extra and help towards getting a result."

Still only 21, although his birthday is in three weeks' time, he's loved the past year: "I think it's been a pretty hectic 12 months from when I made my debut. It's gone from strength to strength. I've really enjoyed the last year, it's given me a lot of confidence going forward.

"There's a different feeling [now]. Before I was just happy to be involved and looking for any opportunity. Now I'm coming in and I want to make as big an impact as possible. I've still got that same initial excitement and that eagerness to go and do well."

Progress on the club front has helped the lad who's been on Arsenal books since the age of eight. He missed NI manager Ian Baraclough's first win, the 3-0 summer friendly victory over Malta, because he was helping Blackpool win the League One play-off final.

"I think last year was extremely successful, especially with Blackpool. We had a really strong finish to the season. Playing in those play-off games was great, really high-pressure games. I took a lot from that and learned a lot from that. They were really good experiences."

The Seasiders understandably wanted to keep him on loan again, but instead he switched to another Championship side, Millwall, and the east London Lions are a good fit for the forceful way Ballard approaches the game.

Indeed, he doesn't believe he should alter his playing style too much on the international stage: "I don't think massively, no. That's a part of my game, I like to be aggressive and on the front foot. You can still do that at international level, although maybe you have to be a bit cleverer.

"Some opponents are the best in the world, they'll do everything the can to win, and they're so clever at 'buying' fouls, creating opportunities. Maybe you have to adapt slightly from game to game but it's not something I think about too much. I like to go in, apply pressure, play at a tempo, play my style of football."

Having said that, he's always aiming to improve, and has been learning lessons from the way Leicester City's Evans conducts himself on the pitch:

"Yeah, definitely. It's always great coming away here where I can meet and play with different styles of footballers. He's a player at the highest level and brings that type of performance to Northern Ireland.

"That's great to see first-hand, it helps, and I try to model the stuff I do on him, seeing how calm and composed he is on the ball, how in control he always seems. That's something I'd like to improve and be better at."

Lithuania have struggled to score this year, with only one goal in six matches this year, in a 3-1 Baltic Cup defeat by Latvia.

If Daniel Ballard has his way, they won't add to that tally in Vilnius tomorrow.

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