Every team needs a commanding presence on the pitch, whether that be physically, vocally, or both. At Sunderland, Dan Ballard fills both of these boxes and the centre back proves every week just how valuable he is to the side.
Playing every minute of the league season so far, he’s helped us on our way to a start which sees us still in the top six despite the recent poor run. He’s gone away with his country and played pretty much every game of the two international breaks so far and then come back and picked up where he left off in a Sunderland shirt.
His displays so far this season have made him a player who I don’t believe we could do without at this moment in time. He is one of the first names on the teamsheet alongside Luke O’Nien at the heart of our defence and, through good times and bad, it looks as though this is Tony Mowbray’s preferred pairing.
Watching Ballard play and you can see how he’s becoming a proper centre back. He’s all the qualities of a traditional defender, whilst also being very tidy on the ball. In Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Stoke, he made more attacking runs than some of our forwards, which is perhaps a more demanding verdict for them than him.
As well as being a tough and imposing figure in the middle, Ballard is also our joint second top scorer. Two tidy finishes, including a proper defender’s header away at Sheffield Wednesday, have been well-earned bonuses to a man in form. The better he plays, however, the more interest you would imagine he is receiving from Premier League clubs.
Towards the end of last season, we started to miss Ballard’s presence in the back line. Heading to Luton for the second leg of the playoffs with Trai Hume and O’Nien at centre back was always going to end badly, and it remains a big ‘what if’ if only one of him or Danny Batth were fit. Keeping hold of him in the summer was crucial, and whatever successes we do achieve this season I’ve no doubt the big man will have a big part to play.
He’s up there with one of the best centre backs I’ve seen play for Sunderland, and having him be an ever-present so far this season has no doubt been a huge factor in our good start.
Yet there will come a time when we are without him, whether that be through injury or suspension. When this inevitably happens, it will hopefully do so with his replacement ready to go- a replacement who at this point looks likely to be Jenson Seelt.
Ballard is the sort of player our model has and will continue to thrive on. A young player in need of a first real break in senior football. He’s suffered injury heartbreak along the way, but he’s looked every bit at home in the Championship when he’s been out on that pitch.