Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Greece: Skipper Davis ready to take final leap into history

By Steven Beacom

Steven Davis has promised that the Northern Ireland players will embrace the expectation in the air at Windsor Park tonight when they face Greece.

Almost 12,000 raucous fans will be inside the stadium, with most of them hoping and believing they are going to witness history being made.

Northern Ireland have NEVER qualified for the European Championship finals before.

Victory this evening, however, and that bridge will well and truly have been crossed.

And Davis, like his team-mates, can't wait to get going.

What has been refreshing this week speaking to the players has been their cool, calm, confident manner.

Few do it better than the 30-year-old Southampton midfielder, who leads by example on and off the pitch.

Every single player in the squad looks up to him and come tonight they will know if Davis is in form, Northern Ireland will have every chance of picking up the three points needed to make it to France.

He can set the mood and has enough quality to dictate the game, which he labels as the biggest he has ever played.

The rest of the side would say the same.

Not since 1986 have Northern Ireland played in the finals of a major tournament.

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Northern Ireland v Greece: Players poised to go down in history with all eyes on Windsor showdown  

The wait has been too long for supporters who have been caught up in the emotion of this campaign like few others in the last 30 years.

Against Greece the fans want to experience the ultimate high. Waiting another few days until O'Neill's men play their final group game in Finland on Sunday might be too much to bear.

"It's a long time since Northern Ireland have qualified for a major tournament, and we've never been to the Euros, so we know we're on the cusp of something special," said Davis on the eve of the game.

"One thing you can say about this squad is that we won't get carried away and take our eye off the ball. We'll just keep doing what we've done to get ourselves in this position, which is a great position to be in.

"In terms of all the expectation we are embracing it. I don't think there's any nerves, it's excitement in the build-up to the game.

"We can't wait to get back out there and that's been the case since the final whistle against Hungary last month when we scored a late equaliser. That was a very important goal for us in terms of morale and momentum.

"It's hard to sum up in words what it would mean to qualify. We're so close yet so far at this point in time.

"What we have done is put ourselves in a great position with hard work, being disciplined in games, and also quality. It's just about going out and showing that again, and hopefully we can get over the line against Greece.

"It's going to be a tight game, the Greeks have got a lot of quality, you can see that in the number of players they have had in the Champions League this season, but there is belief in our camp that we can win. It is the biggest game of our lives given the importance of the result."

Davis was just 18 months old when Northern Ireland last played in a major finals -the 1986 World Cup.

He said: "I obviously don't remember anything about 1986, though I have seen different videos of that time and heard lots of stories from ex players.

"It would be huge for us to qualify and follow in their footsteps. I won't underestimate how big it would be."

To deliver the dream, Northern Ireland will need goals and without the free scoring Kyle Lafferty, who is suspended, others must step up. Perhaps Davis himself, who scored his first goal for Southampton in almost two years on Saturday against Chelsea.

"It presents us with an opportunity with Kyle out. When you see the quality of finishing in training you'd expect us to score more goals during the campaign," stated the former Rangers hero set to win his 77th cap.

"Kyle has been our talisman but we are going to be dangerous from set-plays and Big G (Gareth McAuley) and people like that will be a handful.

"There is an opportunity for someone to write their name in the history books."

It would be fitting if that someone was the captain.

Belfast Telegraph