A third key member of our squad secured on a fresh contract, another boost ahead of the new season starting, and a rich reward for a player who, when fully fit, is an automatic pick for Sunderland and with the potential to be one of the Championship’s best defenders.
If we’re talking ‘ambition’ and for the club to ensure that key assets are retained and certainly not sold for pennies if and when the time comes, Dan Ballard’s new deal, announced on Friday evening as preparations continue for Sunday’s league opener against Ipswich, is about as emphatic a statement as they could make.
The news that Trai Hume and Dennis Cirkin had signed new contracts earlier in the summer was a major positive, and the fact that the Northern Ireland international will remain on Wearside is equally so.
Indeed, the progress made in footballing matters can’t merely be gauged by the signings we’ve brought in (of which many are very exciting); it’s also about ensuring that our most valuable assets are rewarded for their form and that contracts are extended if it suits both the player and the club.
It’s a far cry from the dog days of League One, when there was simply no rhyme or reason to anything relating to football, but Ballard is the kind of defender who in the modern game is worth his weight in gold.
Ever since his arrival at the Stadium of Light last summer, he’s established himself as a defensive lynchpin when fully fit.
When Ballard, a former Arsenal youth team captain, joined the club, he confidently declared that ‘supporters could expect to see a player who loves defending and tackling’.
It was an eye-catching statement to make, but not in an arrogant way, and he backed up those words and then some during 2022/2023.
Comfortable on the ball, positionally sound and gifted with Danny Batth’s desire to take pride in the art of defending, he’s made a huge impression in red and white, and had unfortunate injuries not restricted his appearances during his maiden campaign, he could’ve been a strong contender for ‘player of the season’.
We all know how defensive injuries had such a major impact on our late-season run towards and into the playoffs, and had Ballard and Batth been fit for the second leg of the semi-final against Luton, who knows how things might’ve panned out?
From a broader perspective, the club deserves praise for this move, and it offers further proof that they’re keen to build a team, not dismantle one.
Retaining Ballard demonstrates that Sunderland is a club where a young player’s career can thrive, instead of being derailed by a poor environment, a dated coaching structure, or with the club mired in the lower league backwaters.
There’s often been speculation regarding the intentions of the current Sunderland hierarchy and what exactly they hope to gain from their investment. Are they the real deal or the emperor’s new clothes, content to stick dogmatically to a ‘model’ at the expense of delivering future success?
In response to that, it’s fair to say that if they were content for the club to drift aimlessly with no aspirations of top flight football, they wouldn’t be moving to improve the squad as they have done, nor would they have overhauled things to such a degree that so many of our players are now rumoured to be attracting top flight interest.
It’s vitally important to remember that not a single key player has been sold under this regime.
Yes, players have departed at the end of their contracts and in Leon Dajaku’s case, it was a fairly expected parting of the ways earlier in the summer, but we haven’t bade farewell to any of our most valuable players since Kristaan Speakman started calling the shots, and there’s no reason to think that’ll change in the near future.
Overall, it’s been a positive summer for Sunderland, and we’re clearly not finished yet.
Greater depth has been added in key areas, some exciting young prospects have arrived, and new deals have been signed by a trio of important players.
It all points to genuine and sustained progress, and it also sends a message to would-be suitors who are interested in our players that we’re under no pressure to sell, and after years of being easy pickings for any club who took an interest, Sunderland AFC is no longer a soft touch.
Ballard is a brilliant defender and a rugged, no-nonsense personality. If we needed another reason to be excited ahead of Sunday, we’ve certainly been given it with yesterday’s news.