Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Northern Ireland proved Ronald Koeman wrong in Prague as Steven Davis showed he still makes his team tick

First blood: Paddy McNair is mobbed after opening the scoring against the Czech Republic
First blood: Paddy McNair is mobbed after opening the scoring against the Czech Republic
Steven Davis

By Steven Beacom

Steven Davis controlled the ball inside his own half, turned and assessed the options ahead of him. As he has done so often in his career, the midfielder made the right choice and delivered an incisive pass into the path of Paddy McNair.

The farmer's son from Ballyclare surged forward at pace and produced a stunning finish, leaving Czech Republic defenders and the goalkeeper in his wake to slot home his second of the game and Northern Ireland's third.

It was a beautiful goal, carved out by the creative class of the captain and executed by the man who in the future will surely take over that mantle.

Davis, already revered as one of the nation's greatest sporting servants, is still Northern Ireland's key man. It's been like that for the past decade. Hopefully there will be a few more years of the same to come and at least one more major tournament for the Rangers hero to play in.

When Davis, 35 in January, left the pitch last night, he did so with Michael O'Neill's side leading 3-0 in the friendly with the Czechs thanks to a dynamic double by the outstanding McNair and Jonny Evans. The final score was 3-2 with the visitors holding on at the end.

It was an insight into the future without the skipper, whose calming influence is so important to those around him. Ask his international team-mates and they'll tell you Davis inspires them. It's been a similar scenario throughout his club career.

In Prague last night, he joined David Beckham as the UK's most-capped midfielder on 115 international appearances, surpassing his club manager Steven Gerrard in the process.

That's the type of company the former Aston Villa, Fulham and Southampton star deserves to keep.

He'll go in front of Beckham next month when Holland and his old Saints boss Ronald Koeman come to Belfast and then the chase will be on to overhaul countryman and fellow Northern Ireland great Pat Jennings (119 caps) before turning his attention to Wayne Rooney (120) and Peter Shilton (125) to become Britain's most-capped footballer.

How the Green and White Army would love that. They'd love it even more if Davis was marching the team out in the Euro 2020 finals.

Northern Ireland are unlikely to reach the tournament through the group stages following losses to Germany and Holland in their previous matches but the friendly victory over the Czechs illustrated once again bar the superpowers O'Neill's players are a match for anyone.

That should prove vital in the play-offs which will take place in March. Sure, there are lots of group games across the board to be played before Northern Ireland are certain to be in next month's draw, but it is looking good.

So too does a 3-2 win over a country that put England to the sword in Euro qualifying a few days earlier.

Northern Ireland will fear nobody when the play-offs come around.

Before that, Koeman will arrive at Windsor in November as public enemy No.1 after his unnecessary and unkind comments about Northern Ireland's tactics and style of play in Rotterdam last Thursday night.

Face facts Ronald, your Dutch side didn't exactly play total football and only scraped to a 3-1 triumph courtesy of two injury-time goals when O'Neill's team were suffering from tired minds and tired limbs.

If he sees a tape of last night he'll watch some scintillating football from Northern Ireland, not least that glorious third goal. From double Dutch despair to hitting perfection in Prague. Quite the turnaround in a wonderful first-half show.

The Czechs, with England's slayer Zdenek Ondrasek on in the second half, grew stronger as the game wore on and netted through Vladimir Darida and Alex Kral after the break but O'Neill's side finished victorious.

Unlike in Rotterdam, no points were at stake but this morale-boosting victory will do Northern Ireland the power of good when Euro 2020 qualification is on the line.

Belfast Telegraph


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