If there’s a long-running theme that’s underpinned Sunderland’s 2022/2023 Championship season, it’s the question of ‘what if?’
Suffice it to say, there have been plenty of instances this season, especially as our playoff chances have gradually receded, where hypothetical scenarios are analysed and possible outcomes discussed.
What if we hadn’t played so many games without a frontline striker? What if we hadn’t conceded a farcical equaliser to QPR’s goalkeeper after having led the game 2-0? What if we hadn’t stood back and admired our handiwork against runaway leaders Burnley, having had them staring at a 2-0 deficit at half time?
All ifs, buts and maybes of course, and among them is the question of what if Dan Ballard had been available for the entire campaign?
At the time of writing, Ballard’s central defensive partnership with Danny Batth is looking ever more impressive, albeit occasionally marked by some iffy moments and performances, and he’s certainly a player who could make the step up to the Premier League, hopefully in a Sunderland shirt.
The former Arsenal youth captain was an intriguing signing when he moved to Wearside last summer.
He arrived with impressive pedigree at both club and international level, having skippered the Gunners to two FA Youth Cup finals. He also seemed to tick plenty of the boxes needed for a Championship level central defender and at twenty three, he fitted the ideal profile of a modern-day Sunderland signing.
Indeed, when unveiled at the Academy of Light, he grabbed my attention by declaring that supporters could ‘expect to see a player who loves defending and tackling’. Confident words from such a young player.
As we kicked off our Championship campaign, Ballard’s early performances in red and white under Alex Neil suggested that we’d plucked a diamond from the London footballing melting pot.
However, then came the QPR game, during which he suffered a foot injury that would rule him out until late December. It was a frustrating turn of events and it robbed Tony Mowbray of a key player upon his arrival at the club.
It’s to the immense credit of Luke O’Nien that he formed a reliable combination with Batth when duty called, but now that the former Millwall loanee has made a successful return, we’ve established a central defensive partnership that could well be the bedrock for a top six push next season.
Behind his two centre backs, if Anthony Patterson can continue to improve all aspects of his game (perhaps with an experienced number two to push him) our defensive spine ought to be as solid as it's been in many years for 2023/2024, and a spiteful attitude towards the concession of goals is just what’s needed.
In Ballard and Batth, there’s a nice balance and a rapport that seems to be growing every time they play together.
Of course they’ve suffered some bad days at the office, but they’re clearly resilient footballers and both seem to be cut from the same abrasive cloth. For years, fielding a reliable pair in this position was a long-running dilemma but for now, it’s nowhere near as big a concern.
If Batth is a ‘nuts and bolts’ kind of defender: in your face, strong in the tackle and a reliable organiser and vocal leader, Ballard’s skillset is more rounded.
He’s comfortable in possession, can pass with good variety, and isn’t afraid to carry the ball out of defence if he feels it’s an option.
Come the summer, with Bailey Wright’s status less than certain and January arrival Joe Anderson clearly a prospect for the future, we’ll certainly need to bolster the ranks in central defence, even when Aji Alese returns from injury.
However, if Ballard’s first season at the Stadium of Light is anything to go by, they’ll already be laying the groundwork for more signings of his calibre.
He might’ve been relatively unheralded when he arrived but he’s a key figure now. His best years are certainly still to come, and if those years are spent in the red and white stripes and hopefully as part of a promotion-winning team, we’ve certainly got yet another exciting player to keep our eyes on.