Born in Ballymena in 1985, it wasn’t until 2002 that the world of football was first introduced to the talents of Steven Davis. After making the brave journey from St Andrews Boys Club to Premier League outfit Aston Villa, the 17-year-old midfielder hit immediate success, lifting the FA Youth Cup in 2002, before finding himself replacing Nolberto Solano in a goalless draw at Norwich City just two years later. It was, however, the 2005/06 season with The Villains that caught the eye of the millions watching on the precocious midfielder. Davis starred in the centre of the park which led him to huge personal success in the form of accolades such as Aston Villa’s Young Player of the Year, The Fans Player of the Year and indeed Player of the Year awards in a remarkable season in the English top-flight.
A year at Fulham with international companions Aaron Hughes and Lawrie Sanchez followed, but before that he had already well and truly established himself as a crowd favourite among the Green and White Army. An ever-present figure since his national team debut in 2005, Davis was an early bloomer as he became Northern Ireland’s youngest ever captain in a friendly against Uruguay and has gone from strength to strength for both club and country.
With three Scottish Premiership titles, two Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups with Rangers, the 33-year-old has had an illustrious career to date, yet one can’t help but think just how many more trophies Davis could and perhaps should have to his name. A return to Rangers certainly isn’t off the cards, according to the man himself, yet for that to happen he must find his way back into the first-team fold at Southampton, and quickly. Having left the Scottish outfit in 2012 to revive his career, the former Rangers man could now ironically be on his way back to Ibrox for the season. It is undoubtedly a very strange situation for Davis to find himself in, having etched his position as a mainstay on both the international and club circuit.
Waiting on the wings at Southampton must surely be uncomfortable for a player of the Northern Irishman’s ilk. With manager Mark Hughes opting to feature the likes of Mario Lemina, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Oriol Romeu, Stuart Armstrong and James Ward-Prowse all ahead of Davis this season, the Ballymena-born midfielder is an appalling sixth choice for the Saints. Perhaps there is more to what meets the eye but the fact that the midfielder has played zero minutes so far this current campaign suggests there is a serious problem. With one win from four, a comeback may be in store for their former captain sooner rather than later.
The unfortunate club situation has not, however, affected the player’s international prowess, with the former Fulham man consistently turning in impressive displays for his country, especially when they need him the most. Having somehow failed to accumulate game time in the Premier League this season, one would forgive Northern Ireland’s talisman for a misplaced pass or a lack of energy. On the contrary, not only was Davis’ touch and distribution of the highest order, but his commitment to the cause was second to none. Commanding the midfield in another first-class display against Bosnia and scoring in an inspired 3-0 victory over Israel, the 33-year old continues to have an arsenal of skill sets in his locker.
Despite Davis’ continued class on grass, it would be fair to state that the Southampton midfielder’s efforts go massively under the radar and as a result, he tends to be underappreciated for Northern Ireland. It is, however, difficult to imagine a player with a higher impact and one that is central to everything positive about a single team than O’Neill’s captain. Comparisons can be drawn with those of Wilfried Zaha at Crystal Palace, who is inarguably the protagonist for the South Londoners, but the rapid winger is also a menace for the Ivorians and yet is in and out of the starting eleven.
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In an ugly era of the beautiful game, Northern Ireland’s No.8 represents one of the very few remaining gentlemen in a slowly disintegrating sport void of integrity. The toxic element of money and its lengthy list of negative connotations have far too long dominated a sport which catered to the working class from the outset. From dicey referees and scheming sides, resorting to simulation and play-acting, disrespecting managers, racism and hooliganism among a host of other adverse issues in the modern game, it’s safe to say that football has reared its ugly head in the 21st century more than any other era. There is, however, an honest and authentic group within football that continue to play the game the way it should be played, and Northern Ireland should count themselves lucky that their captain stands proudly within that group.
On a more technical note, it is evident that Davis does the simple things very well, while the difficult things come just as naturally. With an exquisite first touch and an eye for a pass, the midfielder has very few flaws to his game, and his versatility shines through with the ability to perform a box to box role just as easily as his more suitable playmaker role. Creative, clinical and a dead-ball specialist, the Southampton man never switches off and puts in a shift at times, making him a fan favourite wherever he plies his trade.
More importantly for the national team, however, Davis’ attitude on and off the field has generated the perfect environment for other players to develop into national team regulars. First up was Oliver Norwood, who has thrived beside the veteran in recent years, and Middlesbrough’s George Saville is showing early signs of becoming a worthy successor to the No.8 shirt. However, the midfield maestro still has a lot to give, and his efforts to this day are indispensable.
Davis received his prestigious 100th cap award in the latest UEFA Nations League fixture, appropriately in front of his adoring fans in Belfast. The midfielder remains a cult hero with the Northern Ireland faithful, having been named in the Irish Football Association’s Greatest Ever XI not so long ago. In a mesmerising team involving national heroes, past and present, Davis sits well in his depth in a midfield alongside Keith Gillespie, Danny Blanchflower, and the one and only George Best. Davis finds himself among Northern Irish football royalty and is more than deserving of his place in this special folklore.
Never known for his goalscoring ability, Davis does, however, always seem to pop up with crucial goals for club and country, none more so than all the way back in October 2015, when the midfielder found the back of the net twice in a 3-1 victory over Greece to send Northern Ireland into their first ever European Championships. In an unforgettable evening in Belfast, Davis was unsurprisingly the standout figure in a heroic team performance and was justly rewarded with two stunning goals to send his beloved Green and White Army into delirium.
Since that magical night in Windsor Park, the former Rangers man has gone on to continuously star for the national team and now finds himself third in the nation’s all-time most capped players list with 103 appearances, narrowly behind other national heroes in Aaron Hughes and Pat Jennings. As the second most capped outfield player, the 33-year-old may well be getting on in his international career, but if recent showings are anything to go by, Davis still has a lot to give in national colours.
Southampton might be overlooking his talents, but Michael O’Neill certainly isn’t. Northern Ireland still need Steven Davis, and Steven Davis still needs Northern Ireland.
Feature Image via St. Mary’s Musings
Image 1 via Sky Sports
Image 2 via Eurosport
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