Daniel Ballard opens up on the key talks and ambition that convinced him to leave Arsenal for Sunderland

Daniel Ballard signing on the dotted line at the Academy of Light brought a key early target to fruition for Sunderland.

As it became clear that Ballard would be available for a permanent transfer this summer, they put themselves firmly in the mix right from day one.

When the 22-year-old spoke to the club hierarchy, they outlined exactly what a key role they wanted him to take in the side, and that they wanted him to be the first through the door.

Competition was fierce, and it is well known that Burnley were a significant player in recent weeks.

Northern Ireland defender Daniel Ballard

Ballard, though, has signed up for a project that he is relishing.

He had been at Arsenal since joining the club's academy at eight, so this is a big step but one he feels ready for. Two years away from the Emirates at Blackpool and then Millwall have brought him to this point.

Both were major successes, and now is the moment to find a permanent home and take his quickly developing game to the next level.

It's an added bonus that for all it was a long couple of weeks, the deal has been done in time to get him quickly into pre-season training.

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Ballard will travel with the group to Portugal next week and give himself every chance of pushing his claims for a place.

"Arsenal made it pretty clear that there wasn't a pathway through to the first team at this moment in time," Ballard explains.

"I think we sort of agreed that it was the best thing for me to look for a new challenge permanently.

"There was a lot of interest from a few clubs and it was just about picking the right one to progress with.

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"It'll definitely be a bit strange not being an Arsenal player, not having that bit of extra support and going back at the end of the season, but I definitely think I've picked the right club so that I don't need that.

"Sunderland approached really early, they showed a really strong interest.

"That was really exciting for me.

"I had a lot of chats with the manager and the people above him, and they made really clear that I was one of the key targets and that they wanted me to be the first player through the door for them.

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"That gave me an awful lot of confidence, just that they really wanted me here and also to be a really key part of the team.

"There's [then] a lot of work that goes on, especially because of the fact that it's not a loan so between the clubs there was a lot of negotiating to do," he adds.

"Obviously I don't have any input in that so you're just waiting, hoping that something can get agreed.

"We've got it done relatively early which is good, that was the plan. You want that pre-season so you can get settled, get to know the lads.

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"This is a great challenge and I'm really looking forward to it."

Ballard perfectly fits the bill for what Sunderland are looking for in the market this summer.

As Alex Neil explained, he is a player still to reach his full potential but one that already has significant Championship experience.

31 appearances last season, in fact, at a level which made Millwall keen to try and bring him back to the club this summer.

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First and foremost this season is about consolidation but it reflects well on Sunderland's ambition that they were able to sell Ballard something he wanted to sign up amid significant demand for his signature.

"This is obviously a longer-term project and I think it was that ambition that really excited us," he says.

"That was one of the main reasons I wanted to be here.

"I already feel comfortable and I've only been here a few days.

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"I need to get myself up to fitness now, try and get myself into the team.

"It was only my first year in the Championship last year but I think I played enough to get the gist of what it's about, how tough it is.

"That's hopefully something I can bring to the team."

Ballard's defensive skills are well known to Sunderland.

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At Bloomfield Road deep into the 2020/21 season he produced an excellent defensive display in a 1-0 win over the Black Cats, a clearance off his line the most eye-catching moment of all-round performance. Alongside Daniel Gretarsson he was one of the key reasons Blackpool were able to storm to a play-off win, aided of course by Elliot Embleton's flair in attack.

That defensive resilience is the bedrock of Ballard's game, but the demands of modern football mean he has long been developing his work in possession.

"I think as a player my defensive skills have always been probably my main strength, it's something which comes really naturally to me because it's a side of the game I really love," Ballard explains.

"I think my stuff on the ball is probably the side of the game I can work on, because obviously the game has changed a lot in the past few years, so that's been a key focus. I feel really confident with that now and it's something which I'll keep going with, so I can hopefully be that really well-rounded player."

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Time is on his side, and his starting point is a strong one.