Belfast Telegraph

Davis is striving to seize place in Northern Ireland folklore

Skipper out to emulate World Cup heroes

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis has spoken about the impact qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals would have on the country.

And the Southampton midfielder has voiced his optimism for the rest of the campaign, feeling that the team are in a good place to go all the way to France.

In Northern Ireland's football history, qualification for a major finals has only been secured three times... for the 1958, 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

To date, no Northern Ireland side has ever played in the European Championship finals, but Davis and his team-mates are determined that will change next year.

On the back of Saturday's scoreless draw at home to Romania, Northern Ireland are in second place in Group F, two points clear of third-placed Hungary.

The Romanians head the table, one point in front of Michael O'Neill's men with four games left in the campaign.

Davis knows this is Northern Ireland's best chance of qualifying for a big tournament since he made his international debut over a decade ago.

"I've been around the squad for a long time and it's a really enjoyable squad to be around. If you don't enjoy where we are now, you never will," he said.

"It's nice to be playing in important fixtures when the pressure is on in June, because I've turned up for many a friendly at this time of year when it's been difficult.

"We're in a good place and everyone's enjoying it. Hopefully we can keep up the quality and get ourselves a place in France.

"We know how huge it would be for the country if we qualify. People still talk about the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and people like Gerry Armstrong, who is a hero here, are so fondly thought of.

"It would be fantastic for this team to create its own memories and experience that.

"We're optimistic about where we're at and we have to try and embrace the situation.

"So far, we've managed to do that. If we continue putting in the effort, be disciplined and driven the way we were on Saturday night, hopefully that will see us through."

Davis admitted that he knew that Hungary had defeated Finland 1-0 before the game, bringing the Magyars closer to Northern Ireland.

"It would have been nice to see a draw there or a Finland win, but the other games are outside our control. We can't worry about that. We can only focus on ourselves," said the former Rangers star.

"Against Romania we came off the pitch with a sense of disappointment but it's hard to reflect immediately after the game. Thinking about it now, it's a good point and there are a lot of positives.

"Romania are a good team, but we competed really well with them and in the second-half, we were the dominant side.

"The Hungary result has made things that little bit more interesting in the group. Things have tightened up, but I don't think it was ever going to be an easy task qualifying. We knew there'd be a few twists and turns."

A play-off place at least seems guaranteed for Northern Ireland.

Davis insists though that no one in O'Neill's camp will take anything for granted.

"When we have taken our eye off the ball in the past, we've been punished. We know where we are in the group and we can't afford to think like that," said the 30-year-old.

"There's a determination in the squad and you can see that in the level of performance and effort on Saturday, the way we tried to close Romania down and stop them playing. We were maybe just lacking a little in the final third."

"We have a double header in September against the Faroe Islands and Hungary and we're in a positive place heading into those games. I think every time I speak to the media, the games are getting bigger and bigger, but it's a good place to be and I think we have dealt with the pressure very well.

"The Faroes won't be easy. I know from experience it will be tough. They play on astroturf, so that might have an effect, but I'm sure we'll be fully prepared for that game."

Before the September showdowns, Davis will be involved in Europa League action with Southampton, starting next month.

"It will be nice to put the feet up between now and then! I've a couple of weeks before I'm back in pre-season on July 6," he said with a smile.

  • NI remaining fixtures: Friday Sept 4: v Faroe Islands (away), Monday Sept 7: v Hungary (home), Thursday Oct 8: v Greece (home), Sunday October 11: v Finland (away).

Belfast Telegraph