With the departures of established experienced players such as Danny Batth and Lynden Gooch, there has been a great deal of discussion around the inexperience of the squad that Tony Mowbray now has at his disposal.
Mike Stubbs has been taking a look at the leaders we still have who might help Sunderland’s exciting prospects cope with the ups and downs of a Championship season.
Today’s focus is central defender Dan Ballard.
Dan Ballard’s arrival from Arsenal in the summer of 2022 was seen as a clear statement of intent by Sunderland. We had already raided Premier League clubs for players such as Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins, and Aji Alese and Pierre Ekwah would soon follow.
But Dan Ballard was a slightly different proposition. The other young prospects’ opportunities at senior level had been, at best, limited and mostly non-existent. By contrast, Ballard had enjoyed a successful loan spells, a season in League One with Blackpool, which was followed by a campaign in the Championship with Millwall.
There would have been no shortage of suitors for his signature. The fact that our recruitment team were able to convince him that his future lay at the Stadium of Light is something for which they have not received enough credit, in my view.
Ballard started that season strongly, forming a solid partnership with Danny Batth. We also saw glimpses of his ability to play positively out of defence, before his season was curtailed by two serious injuries.
Alongside Luke O’Nien, he has started this season superbly.
He has the confidence to twist and turn, as he seeks to turn defence into attack. His positional awareness and anticipation result in him rarely looking troubled, and he exudes an air of absolute control. He is the epitome of a defensive brick wall.
West Ham have already expressed an interest in acquiring his services, and he may be one of those players who will make it to the Premier League before Sunderland do. Thankfully, there are players like Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts around him, who can counsel him about the perils of making the big move at the wrong time.
In the meantime, he is becoming the steady, reliable defensive presence around which others can showcase their skills in the full knowledge that Ballard will comfortably sweep up behind them.
Whether he will be with us long enough to wear the armband may be debatable. I would bet this month’s salary that, one day, we will see him leading a Premier League team out onto the pitch. In the meantime, he is a strong, reassuring presence in a team full of potential but light on experience.