Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland can make finals despite Euro 2020 qualifying blow, insists Davis

By Paul Ferguson

Vastly experienced Steven Davis is confident Northern Ireland's hard work and exciting style of play will be rewarded in the Euro 2020 qualifiers - after the skipper admitted he's never endured such a run of bad luck than Michael O'Neill's men suffered in the Nations League.

Northern Ireland are still smarting from Austria's injury-time winner on Sunday night which condemned the men in green to four successive defeats in Uefa's new international competition.

It's the first time since the end of Nigel Worthington's tenure in 2011 that Northern Ireland have lost four straight competitive matches, but 33-year old Davis insists his side have simply not reaped the rewards their good performances have deserved.

They are playing with pace, power and authority, forcing teams onto the back foot, but after registering 56 goal attempts during the games, both home and away, against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria, Northern Ireland scored only two goals, and a lack of clinical finishing, along with self-inflicted defensive errors at crucial times, have cost them.

When asked if he had ever experienced such a run of misfortune, Davis stated: "I don't think so, not in terms of getting the performances we've had without getting results.

"I've definitely had periods where we maybe haven't been playing well and not picked up results.

"To show the consistency we have and not get the results has been difficult to take, but I think the dressing room is still upbeat. We can still see the bigger picture."

After an international year when Northern Ireland recorded just two wins out of nine games, including two with a weakened squad on the end of season Central American tour, it would usually be classified as a disaster.

But the signs for Northern Ireland are actually positive in terms of a new system that is creating numerous chances and not just relying on set-pieces and the counter attack.

O'Neill is playing to the strengths of the players and has used the Nations League to integrate young stars such as goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, left-back Jamal Lewis and winger Gavin Whyte into the team, while also trying Paddy McNair and Michael Smith in the right-back position, where they both impressed.

Davis, who won his 107th cap on Sunday night, is adamant that Northern Ireland will soon start to see an improvement in results to match their displays.

"Listen, if you continue to put in a performance like that you'd expect results to come," admitted the midfielder from Cullybackey.

"We're not going to get downhearted. If you look back over the last five or six games, performance-wise this is probably as well as we've performed consistently.

"We've definitely played worse and won in the past, so there are a lot of good things that we've done and a lot of positives to take.

"Maybe a little bit of fine tuning and being a bit more clinical at this level, which we've already spoken about (after previous matches).

"I think we're in a decent position moving forward and we just have to be confident, believe in what we're doing and I'm sure the tide will turn.

"The squad is getting stronger and that's obviously down to the experience Michael has given the younger players.

"All the younger players have really stepped up and shown what they can do, so that'll stand us in good stead for March.

"We'll look forward to the (Euro) draw and hopefully go on and achieve something special again."

Northern Ireland will find out who they play in the 2020 European Championship qualifiers, which kick-off next March, at a ceremony in Dublin on Sunday, December 2.

Davis and his team-mates will be in Pot Three for the draw after their relegation from the second tier in the Nations League. They will now face two strong nations with world champions France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, England, Switzerland, Holland, Italy and Germany the top seeds, and from Pot Two, they could come up against their rivals this autumn Bosnia and Herzegovina and Austria along with Iceland, Ukraine, Russia, Denmark, Poland and Wales.

Davis conceded: "You know whoever you play of the top seeds, it's going to be difficult.

"I'm not sure there's a kind draw in that seeding. I don't know. We'll just see who we get and look forward to the games.

"Hopefully the draw is kind to us in terms of the nations we pull. We've played against good nations in the Nations League and shown we can compete, so we'll be confident going into the group stages and determined to go and achieve something again."

Davis will return to club Southampton this week where he has made only one start and two substitute appearances this season.

For the last month, the former Aston Villa and Fulham star hasn't even been in Mark Hughes' match-day 18, despite the Saints struggling for positive results in the Premier League.

There has been speculation linking Davis with a return to Rangers in the January transfer window, linking up with rookie boss Steven Gerrard and his international team-mates Kyle Lafferty and Gareth McAuley.

But Davis is just focused on working his way back into Hughes' thoughts at St Mary's.

"Football can change quite quickly, so I've just got to be patient and keep doing what I'm doing," added Davis. "It's hard to replicate the intensity of games in training, but I'm trying to do as much as I can to be ready. Hopefully I'll get an opportunity and I want to try and help as much as possible given the position we're in.

"Hopefully in the coming weeks I'll get that game time."

After all Davis has given to the game over the years, he deserves a break at both club and international level.

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