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I'll be so proud to lead us out in France, says Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis

By Steven Beacom

It will forever go down as one of the greatest moments in Northern Ireland sporting history. Having just scored at Windsor Park, Steven Davis ran towards the fans pointing in tribute towards the sky.

As all around him inside the stadium went wild in celebration at the prospect of qualifying for the country's first major tournament in 30 years, the Northern Ireland captain was thinking about his late mum Laura, his biggest fan, who had passed away in 2008.

Davis had put Michael O'Neill's men ahead against Greece in an eagerly awaited Euro qualifier in Belfast last October. The skipper was leading by example and leading his team to the promised land... France in the summer of 2016.

The Southampton midfielder would later net again as Northern Ireland beat the Greeks 3-1 on an epic evening.

Davis, from Cullybackey, says it was his greatest night as a footballer.

Read more: Keeping 'outstanding' O'Neill after Euro 2016 is crucial for NI: Davis

Speaking the day after playing a key role in Southampton's 2-0 Premier League victory over Watford on Wednesday night, he knows even bigger and better nights lie ahead this year.

There are now fewer than 150 days to go until the Euro finals begin with Northern Ireland kicking off against Poland on June 12, exactly 30 years since Billy Bingham's legendary side played their final fixture in the 1986 World Cup, before further group games with Ukraine and World champions Germany.

"Leading the team out in that first game will be a special feeling. I will be very proud that night, thinking of my family and all our fans who have waited so long to see us play in a major tournament again," says Davis.

"That is something to relish but even better than that would be coming off the pitch after a victory. Getting a first win under our belt in the opening game would be fantastic because it would give us a great opportunity of achieving our ambition in France which is to make it to the knockout stages.

Read more: Davis: my lowest ebb as NI team struggled

"We always knew that we would be handed a difficult draw but all the boys are determined to embrace the challenge. We will respect the opposition but go to France with belief that we can make the next stage.

"In our squad we have a level headed group who won't get carried away. I can't see anyone being overawed. We will be intent on doing ourselves justice. This year is going to be one to remember."

It hasn't always been that way for Davis who started his international career in 2005.

Just as recently as the 2014 World Cup campaign he was having a tough time processing the defeats suffered during O'Neill's first 18 months in charge. The 31-year-old former Rangers and Fulham star admits, as captain, he took the losses personally.

"When Michael took charge and gave me the armband and we had that poor run of results in the World Cup qualifiers it wasn't easy," said the Southampton midfielder (below).

"When Northern Ireland are beaten all the players are disappointed but as captain the defeats we had then really hurt me. I took the results personally and that run was a low point for me.

"I felt more pressure and responsibility being captain and didn't want to let anyone down. Wins were hard to come by in Michael's early games and it was a difficult start for all of us.

"Then in the Euro campaign we had a brilliant start, gained momentum and ended up reaching the finals in the style.

"The experience of that more than made up for the World Cup campaign."

In the successful Euro campaign, it was no coincidence that the only game Northern Ireland lost (in Romania) was when Davis was injured. He is an influential figure for his country on and off the pitch. Ditto at Southampton, even if in England he doesn't always receive the praise his performances merit.

He enjoys life on the south coast though admits the Saints need to be more consistent in the remainder of the season after a patchy run of form to date which has left them in mid-table.

"It has been a little bit frustrating this season, but never doom and gloom. There have been games when we have shown our quality like when we beat Arsenal and Chelsea and defeating Watford on Wednesday night was another good performance. We need more of that," he says.

Eternally grateful for the support and love of mum Laura and dad David when growing up, wife Tracey is his rock now. Davis himself is a genuine character - one of the good guys. He is the foundation on which Northern Ireland's success has been built.

Belfast Telegraph


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