SUNDERLAND defender Dan Ballard says it will be a "dream come true" when he captains Northern Ireland against Andorra tonight.

The 24-year-old centre-half is set to skipper his national side in the absence of usual captain Jonny Evans.

Ballard has captained Northern Ireland in the past but only late on in games. But with Evans not travelling for the friendly having battled a string of niggles of late, Ballard will lead Michael O'Neill's side out for the very first time.

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“It will be a dream come true,” Ballard told the Belfast Telegraph.

“It will be different starting as skipper. I’m excited. It is one of the biggest honours a player can have and I’m really looking forward to it. My family will be over the moon and I’m sure they will be extremely proud just as I am.”

Ballard is one of the leaders in Sunderland's dressing room and says he'll be comfortable wearing the armband for his country.

“I feel like I play like a captain. I try to lead," he said.

"I’m a centre back and play quite aggressively and always try to help my team-mates. I’d like to lead by example for Northern Ireland.

“Captains like Jonny (Evans) and Davo (Steve Davis) were captains that led by example.

“They weren’t shouters or screamers. I think that is probably something I have looked at and admired and I appreciated that from them. I found them not being screamers or shouters a lot more helpful for me so I’ll maybe go down that route.”

Ballard headed Northern Ireland into a surprise early lead against Spain at the weekend but O'Neill's side went on to lose the game 5-1.

The former Arsenal youngster believes Northern Ireland are heading in the right direction and thinks he's made big forward strides in the last 12 months, despite Sunderland's struggles.

“The mood in the (Northern Ireland camp has been really good,” he said.

“We have a young group now and there is a real bond and connection forming. We have probably had five or six camps together now.

“And we have kept some of the older players which has been extremely important. I’m getting a little older myself now and I believe I have a better understanding of the game and with more experience hopefully I can take my game to the next level.

“In the last year I feel I’ve grown as a player and it has been really positive.”


Boss O'Neill has called on his side to play with confidence at the Estadio Nueva Condomina in Murcia tonight.

He said: “This game is different because we know there is an expectation there obviously,” he said. “We have to go in and play with confidence. We have to play quickly. We don’t want the game to be slow and pedestrian.

“We can make it a frustrating night for ourselves but it’s important that we don’t do that.”