Ballymena Guardian Sport caught up with record breaking Northern Ireland Captain Steven Davis between leading his country to a marvelous penalty shootout win over Bosnia and Herzegovina in the UEFA Euro Qualifiers and Nations League game against Austria.
As the paper congratulated Steven on his 120th cap for his country, beating the legendary Pat Jennings, record we tried to find out how this sensational run of caps came about from boyhood to present day.
Our question and answer feature is as follows -
Question:Think back Steven to your earliest football memory.
Steven Davis: I can always just remember having a ball at my feet, playing with my brother Richard who is 3 years older and his friends. My father didn’t play any football so it was all just good fun in my early days.
Q: You attended Buick Memorial Primary School where you came under the eye of teacher/football coach Mr Tommy Speers who probably saw your talent in the front playground of the school.
SD: Yes when I was at Buick Memorial I think I played a few years for the school team winning fairly regular. I do remember winning the Ballymena District league with Buick in 1995 after completing the league unbeaten we had a great wee team, all of us used to love playing for the school as we had success and it got you out of class. Mr Speers was the coach and players like Derek Reid the Nicholl brothers, David Ferguson etc. Have great memories and friends from primary school.
Q: After leaving Buick Memorial and making the long walk up the drive on the Galgorm Road to Ballymena Academy where the ball was a slightly different shape and mainly a predominantly rugby school were you ever asked to kick one between the posts and over the bar.
SD: Yes it was different going to the Academy where it was compulsory to play rugby at school. I used to turnout on the rugby pitch as a scrum half and although I enjoyed it wasn’t for me. It was frustrating that we didn’t have a school football team until 4th year which was a shame. I know the Academy has a successful history with rugby but I would like to see football at the school taken seriously as well so everyone gets a chance.
Q: Back to your football career Steven you shone at Buick where you and your best mate Derek Reid also played for the Ballymena District team. Not only did the two of yous play for the District but yous were asked to attend a primary school residential, is this where St Andrews Boys Club first spotted you
SD: Yes I went to a residential in Coleraine where Joe Kincaid was there who founded St Andrews BC and invited me up to train. And from there I never looked back. It was a great set up with some quality players and we had a lot of success.
Q: Through your early youth playing development had you many trials.
SD: Yes I went to Rangers, Arsenal and Aston Villa but like all young lads everyone dreams of making a career out of playing football. So it came reality when I signed for Aston Villa. I was going over to Aston Villa from I was 12 years old but very nearly signed for Rangers first. Little did I know then that I would be going to Rangers later in my career. I had been going over to Villa most weekends at one point before they changed the rules that you had to live within a certain distance from the ground. After that it was school holidays where the school bag was forgot about and the boot bag was packed. I had got to know the boys at Aston Villa quite well before making the move. It’s a big thing for any kid at that age to leave the home comforts and tough being away from family and friends but it’s what I was determined to do and make a success of.
Q: As a schoolboy international you were part of the first Northern Ireland U15 team under the guidance of manager John McKeag to win the Victory Shield back in 2001, where you beat England 1-0 at Windsor Park and drew with Scotland before the clinching game against Wales was at Ballymena Showgrounds. Do you recall any memories from that game where another future International played namely Dean Shields and future Irish League players in the squad were Johnny Black, Chris Kingsberry and Conall Murtagh now the first team fitness coach at Liverpool.
SD: Again great memories as it was a great platform for us to go and test ourselves against the best players in the UK and an incredible feat to win it.
Q: In 2002 you played in U16-17 International football with a former Ballymena United captain Albert Watson and present captain Jim Ervin who was at Nottingham Forest. After progressing quickly through the underage set up you got to sit on the bench in a qualifier in Azerbaijan in 2004....how did it feel being part of the senior set up at such a young age 19?
SD: I had made my debut for Aston Villa at 19 and was playing regularly by the time in midfield so the call up was just like the next step in my development.
Q: The NI senior squad you joined had just completed a long spell without scoring and you got the all important call up for your full international debut against Canada a few months after your 20th birthday, along with another former Ballymena Academy pupil, Colin Murdock, who was playing for Crewe Alexander, new manager Lawrie Sanchez who had just come in and began to turn things round. What was the mood in the squad you first joined like and was there a feeling things would take off under Lawrie?
SD: It was a really good bunch of boys and I was delighted to get the call up. That squad had some real quality in it and really we could’ve achieved more but we lacked a level of consistency.
Q: Steven roll on to the World Cup qualifier and that assist against England in September 2006 where your delicate pass to David Healy set him up to quieten the Three Lions and for everyone to hear the Windsor Park roar it must have left you with goose bumps.
SD: It will always be one of my favourite footy all time memories, the atmosphere that night was unreal, to come up against the likes of Beckham and Gerrard etc and come away with the result was unbelievable. That result gave everyone a huge lift and level of belief rose even higher.
Q: David O'Leary made you a Premier League regular in his Villa team at the age of 20. How did it feel being so young and playing in centre midfield against players like Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes and how did this experience help you when playing international football.
SD: I’ll be forever grateful to David O’Leary for giving me the opportunity and showing a huge amount of faith in me as young player to play me so regularly for Aston Villa until his departure in July 2006
Q: Unreal Steven that out of your four international managers two of them were reared in Ballymena, namely Nigel Worthington and Michael O’Neill. When Michael O'Neill took over, the international team was in a phase of transition, after a difficult qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup but what changed for the Euro 2016 qualifiers?
SD: We had a belief that although results didn’t go our way in that campaign there were signs that our performances had improved. Then we go and get a huge result to start our qualifying in Hungary and it was just a snowball effect from there on. Confidence and belief in sport can’t be underestimated.
Q: You had first captained the international team as a 21 year old in 2006 but became regular captain a number of years later, how did it feel heading up the squad that qualified for Euros in 2016 and went on to reach the knockout stages there?
SD: I had immense pride, and as a group we all got on so well off the pitch and then when you have success you’ll always have that bond. Always been a pleasure to represent Northern Ireland and to Captain this team and walk out at the European finals was an honour.
Q: Now you are only one game away from going to another European finals with your country what is the mood like in the camp?
SD: We were obviously all buzzing after the game in Bosnia because we know how difficult it is to get results away from home in international football. They also have some top class players so it’s part one done and we’ll be giving it everything come November to achieve another dream. Hopefully with the backing of the GAWA back in the stadium.
Yes Steven hopefully there will be some Green And White Army to help roar the lads to another remarkable achievement.