Belfast Telegraph

It's time for Steve Davis to scale the heights for Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

In no particular order I give you David Healy, Damien Johnson, Keith Gillespie, Stephen Craigan, Jim Magilton, Michael Hughes, Iain Dowie, James Quinn and Aaron Hughes.

They make the list for my 10 favourite Northern Ireland outfield players since first starting to cover the national team.

You will have your own choices and some of the aforementioned won't even be close to making the cut. Fair enough.

Me? I favour those named above for what they gave to the cause down the years as much as their ability in a green shirt, which at times was spectacular.

By now you may be thinking that the bloke writing this cannot count as only nine players have been listed. Deliberate mistake.

Number ten is Northern Ireland's current captain, Steven Davis.

He made his international debut as a 20-year-old in a 1-0 friendly defeat to Canada (pictured) at Windsor Park in February 2005 and has been a regular in the side ever since.

In his first appearance for his country, he was the best player on the pitch.

It was to become a common theme.

To many Steven's standout moment came just six months into his international career when a perfectly weighted pass sent Healy clear on goal to score the winner against England, but he's produced much more than that famous assist while wearing the green shirt.

There's been his skill, style and substance in the middle of the park for starters.

Now the skipper, he has amassed 62 caps at the age of 28.

There's been much talk over the past decade about some of our most popular outfield players potentially becoming centurions – mainly because it has never been done before with only legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings reaching three figures for Northern Ireland.

Gillespie looked on course only to be halted on 86.

Healy seemed sure to break the barrier but, much as I'd love to see it, it's doubtful that the King of Windsor Park will be adding to his 95.

Aaron Hughes stands on 87 yet may soon retire again from the international scene with no comeback this time. Even if Aaron, 34 next month, stays on for another campaign I'm not sure he'll hit the magical milestone.

I have, however, high hopes for Southampton midfielder Davis who, I reckon, has a minimum of three qualifying campaigns left after this one and combined with friendlies he can make the ton.

Tomorrow in Azerbaijan Steven will win his 63rd cap equalling the great Gerry Armstrong. Injury and suspension permitting next Tuesday in Israel he'll make his 10th appearance in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers (our only outfield player with an ever present record) and his 64th overall for Northern Ireland matching Martin O'Neill, once his manager at Aston Villa.

O'Neill, of course, was an exceptional captain for our wee country during the 1982 World Cup finals.

Davis may never savour the joy and pride of that experience, but it shouldn't prevent him shining as Michael O'Neill's skipper.

Steven, a genuinely decent guy, is not one to shout and roar at his team-mates. He prefers to lead by example on the pitch.

Much as I admire the midfielder though, I don't feel he has done enough in that department since being handed the armband at the start of O'Neill's reign.

Certainly in the current campaign the former Fulham and Rangers star has not been as effective as he once was.

Obviously the team is weaker to when he started out, with Healy on fire, Gillespie on the wing, Johnson beside him in midfield and Hughes and Craigan so solid at the back but, even accounting for that, Davis has been far from his brilliant best on too many occasions.

In Luxembourg last month the Northern Ireland skipper, like most of the side, was anonymous.

I can't remember him ever having such a poor international with Luxembourg's part-timers enjoying a free ride in midfield.

In that match, with the team floundering, O'Neill desperately needed his captain to lift those around him.

It didn't happen.

It's up to Davis to show his true colours against Azerbaijan and Israel, just as he did in the 1-0 victory over Russia in August with a wonderful performance.

That was the Steven Davis we knew and loved. When he plays well, so does the team, but it has been rare recently.

He's been outstanding for Southampton lately in their climb to fourth position in the Premier League.

On international duty Steven has to set the tone and deliver dynamic displays. That way Northern Ireland may be able to finish this campaign with a flourish.

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