Sunderland star Daniel Ballard revealed how he felt in captain role

Northern Ireland defender Daniel Ballard has revealed how he felt overwhelmed and emotional captaining the side in the last third of the game against San Marino on Saturday, describing it as one of the best moments in his life.

When Jonny Evans was substituted just after the hour mark during the 3-0 victory in the Euro 2024 qualifier at Windsor Park, the Manchester United star handed the armband to centre-back partner Ballard, who was shocked to be given the honour.

The 24-year-old Sunderland ace, earning his 20th cap, explained that leading the side and following in the footsteps of greats such as Evans and Davis was an ‘amazing’ experience for him and his family.

It also confirmed how highly he is regarded by manager Michael O’Neill and his team-mates and suggests he is considered future captain material.

On being skipper, Ballard said: “I was pretty surprised, to be honest. I didn’t think I’d get it; I never thought I’d be in that position. It was quite overwhelming, and I was quite emotional at the time.

“I had no idea it was going to come to me when Jonny was going off. I just assumed it would be going to someone else, I certainly didn’t think it would be me, but to wear it was an emotional and amazing moment.

“I just never believed I’d ever have that opportunity, and to do it at this age for this nation, it was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

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“To wear that armband at home in front of those fans as well, it was a moment I will remember forever.

“My mum, my auntie and my uncle who live over here were all there, and for them to see that, plus to win and have a clean sheet at home, was amazing for all of us.

“I think we’ve had some amazing captains, Davo (Steven Davis) and Jonny (Evans) recently, and to wear the armband after them is amazing and hard to put into words.

“They are such amazing players, and even if this was just a one-off in this game, I’ll cherish it forever. It’s a feeling I loved and would like again. I’ll do anything I can to help this team.”

Since his debut in 2020, Ballard has consistently been one of Northern Ireland’s standout performers during a challenging period for the nation.

Leading up to Saturday’s game, O’Neill’s team had suffered five consecutive losses. However, that losing streak came to an end as Paul Smyth and Josh Magennis quickly found the net, with substitute Conor McMenamin adding to the score in the later stages.

“We aimed to deliver a strong performance and score multiple goals in front of our supporters,” said Ballard, who is set to play a pivotal role in the upcoming Group H match against Slovenia tomorrow.

The early goals helped ease any anxiety, allowing them to secure victory early on and enabling them to showcase some attractive football.

The focus is on building confidence in the attacking areas. The team possesses talented players in the final third, and what they need is confidence, improved chemistry among the players, and self-belief. This win is expected to contribute positively to that process.

Being a small nation, Northern Ireland often assumes the role of the underdog. When that dynamic is reversed, there can be a different feeling, and perhaps a touch of nervousness. Nevertheless, the early goals provided the necessary boost to secure a convincing victory.

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