EXCLUSIVE: Steven Davis feared he would never represent Northern Ireland in a major international tournament
Steven Davis feared he would never represent Northern Ireland in a major international tournament - but now he has set his sights on leading his team to giant killing glory at Euro 2016.
Davis heads to France this summer as the form player in Michael O’Neill’s squad, with his three goals in Southampton’s final two Premier League games of the season crucial in securing the club’s place in next season’s Europa League.
As he sat down for a chat with the Sunday World at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, this charming 31-year-old midfielder reflected on his enduring international career that started back in 2005 and will reach a crescendo when he takes centre-stage for his nation’s first major tournament match in 30 years against Poland in Nice on Sunday.
“I’m not sure if I truly believed Northern Ireland would qualify for one of the big tournaments in my time with the team if I’m being honest,” begins Davis, in an exclusive interview.
“You turn up for international games and wonder whether you will ever get a chance to go to a major tournament, but we are there now and no-one can say we don’t deserve it after the run we had in qualifying.
“I have been part of the international team for 11 years now and there have not been too many teams when we have come close to qualifying in that time, but some of the lads in the squad have only played a few games and they are off to France. Those new faces must think this international game is easy!”
Davis accepts Northern Ireland will be written off as no-hopers before a ball is kicked, but he is eyeing up Group C games against Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany as an opportunity to defy the doubters.
“Outside of Northern Ireland, no one expects us to do anything in the tournament, we know that, but we have managed to build up a lot of confidence and belief within the squad,” he continues.
“We believe we are capable of getting out of the group. All of us appreciate it's going to be difficult because the level of competition will be raised a level from qualifying, but there is a belief that we can continue our good form.
“Any time we have had the tag of being favourites, we haven’t done too well down the years, but we put that right in qualifying. We tend to do well when no one expects anything of us and we will be underdogs in all three games in the group so that might be to our advantage.
“All the lads in the squad put pressure on ourselves, never mind what anyone else might think. We believe we can go out there, cause a few shocks and progress from the group.
“This is all going to be new for us. Spending three of four weeks with the team in a hotel will be an interesting experience and you often hear players say it can be a bit boring in the build-up to the tournament.
“I don’t think that will be a problem for us because the lads all get along so well and the excitement will be there for us building up to our first match. I’m sure all of us will enjoy the experience.
“Once we get into the group games, there will be a quick turnaround between each one and we want to go out there an make the most of the opportunity we have created for ourselves.”
Davis believes manager Michael O’Neill can take much of the credit for the rise of his side from international minnow to Euro 2016 contenders, as he hinted the Northern Ireland boss may be tempted to return to club management at some point despite recently signing a new deal to continue in his current post.
“It’s only natural that Michael is being looked at by different clubs and maybe the opportunity will come on for him to move on in the future,” states Davis.
“Michael has found a formula that has helped us to win games and that is a credit to him and his staff.
“A lot of preparation went into every game and that helped us get the results, but he has agreed a new deal to stay with us for the next round of qualifiers and that is great news.”
Davis is joining the hordes of fans heading to France scrambling for tickets for Euro 2016 games, with the eight tickets each Northern Ireland player has been promised not close to being enough to satisfy demand among his own clan.
“We have been promised a few tickets each, but we might be scrambling around for a few more when it comes to it,” he adds. “All the family are looking forward to it and it is a special time for everybody.
“It has been a long wait since 1986 and we just want to go out there and do ourselves justice. Hopefully we can show that our fans are the best fans in the world this summer.
“It feels like the whole country is coming with us to France this summer, so can the last person in Northern Ireland please turn off the lights.”
Steven Davis spoke to the Sunday World at an event sponsored by Garmin.