Daniel Ballard had loan options this summer – and the Arsenal defender is fully aware that he has Blackpool to thank for that.
Millwall secured a season-long deal for the 21-year-old centre-back this summer, despite the best attempts of the newly-promoted Seasiders to bring him back for a second stint at Bloomfield Road.
Ballard enhanced his reputation as Blackpool kept 15 clean sheets in his 30 matches for them. The climax saw Neil Critchley’s side beat Oxford in the League One play-off final at Wembley in May.
The Northern Ireland international’s only previous loan before that had been curtailed after just five matches for Swindon, a knee injury ruling him out for five months.
“After that I hadn’t played football in a good year, so finding a loan last summer was difficult in itself,” Ballard told the South London Press. “Back then I was looking for literally any club to give me that chance to go and play.
“Last season’s situation, compared to this one, was completely different. Teams had more opportunity to see me play. There was more interest. It was a different challenge almost, trying to find the right team to go into and play as many games as I can – to do as well as possible.”
So far, so good in that respect. Ballard has played every minute in the Championship since his switch to SE16. He featured for 80 minutes in Tuesday’s 3-1 EFL Cup win over Cambridge before being replaced by debutant Alex Mitchell.
“I probably didn’t expect to come in straight away and get the minutes I have done,” said Ballard.
“I’m extremely delighted with that. To be able to keep my spot now is a good start, on a personal level.
“I knew there was probably a lot more competition coming here than maybe going elsewhere. It gave me that bit of extra drive that I needed, especially in training and the pre-season games.
“It made me work extremely hard. I knew if I wasn’t performing, or putting the effort in, I wouldn’t get the game time.”
Ballard has no intention of easing off and admiring his start to life in Millwall colours. He intends to stay grounded over his progress.
“Every single game is extremely tough,” he said. “I’m not finding the games easy – at all. I know the minute I switch off or take things for granted it is when things can potentially go wrong.
“It’s just having that awareness. I like to give everything I’ve got all the time.
“It’s probably came quite naturally to me – my work ethic and character. It’s something I want to keep doing.”
Millwall are 21st in the Championship table after back-to-back reverses to Fulham and Cardiff. That was also the position that Blackpool were in after four matches – a superb second half of the campaign amassing them 80 points and third spot.
“The start we had at Blackpool wasn’t great at all,” said Ballard. “The first eight to 10 games we were right at the bottom of the table. Things can change so quickly.
“We’ve played some really tough opponents and the performances, apart from Fulham, we haven’t played badly – a few little things have gone wrong in the games.
“They are the things that make the difference. We’re all aware of that. We know things will level out if we keep putting in performances and maybe tweak a few things, work that little bit harder.”
“Looking at the Fulham game, an ex-Premier League team, they had a lot of what you’d call Premier League quality. That jump up, for me, from League One to a team like Fulham is a massive one. But that’s the level.
“It set the marker down. If I want to be competing at the highest level I’m going to have to step up to those sort of challenges. It was a different sort of test against Cardiff, a completely different style of football, but still a very effective way of playing. Three set-pieces won them the game.
“As a team we need to improve. One of Millwall’s strengths over recent years is to be strong on set-pieces – and score goals from them. It was maybe a slight wake-up call and a learning experience that they can win or lose you games.”
Ballard is rooting for Blackpool to stay up after ending a six-year wait to be back in England’s second tier. But that outlook changes, for 90 minutes, this weekend.
With both sides still hunting that first Championship victory, the result can change the mood going into the fortnight’s break for the international programme.
“I’ll be forever grateful for them giving me the opportunity,” said Ballard. “I hope they go on and do really well. Apart from when they play us, I wish them all the best results possible.
“I didn’t get to play in front of the fans too much – but gaining promotion was a massive success.
“I might get a good reception, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. I’d like to think they’d be a little appreciative of the work that went in last season, and the performances we put in to get promoted.
“I’ve got my shirt, medal and the programme [from Wembley] framed now. I still, every now and then, look back at the pictures from the day. Just having all my friends and family there – it was just an amazing occasion.”
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