Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis keeps eyes on prize

Steven Davis will earn his 100th Northern Ireland cap tomorrow night but he insists the World Cup play-off with Switzerland is more important than such personal landmarks.

Southampton midfielder Davis, 32, will become just the third Northern Ireland centurion, following in the footsteps of Pat Jennings and Aaron Hughes when he leads Michael O’Neill’s team out at Windsor Park in the first leg against the Swiss.

It’s a significant milestone but Davis, one of his country’s most understated figures, would rather his 100th cap slid under the radar.

“In all honesty I’m not counting caps,” he said.

“I don’t want anything to distract from my or the team’s preparations for the game. That will be at the very back of my mind.

“It’s a huge landmark and I’m delighted to reach it, but my focus is solely on the game and hopefully after the play-offs I can look back and say it was a special achievement.

“It’s not my personality to be sentimental. It’s more a nice feeling for my family at the game. They can enjoy it more, but your focus automatically is on the game and you are in the zone at that point.”

Northern Ireland face a fight to keep hold of manager O’Neill regardless of how the tie with the Swiss pans out, according to former Premier League boss Danny Wilson.

O’Neill’s team will become the first in Northern Irish history to reach back-to-back finals if they can see off the Swiss.

That achievement would further enhance O’Neill’s reputation and boost a CV that English clubs so far seem to have paid little attention to when vacancies arise.

Wilson, one of just six permanent Northern Irish managers in the Premier League’s history, expects that to change no matter what happens over the next 180 minutes against Switzerland.

“I’ve got no doubt about it — when the campaign’s over with, whether they go to the finals or not, I’m sure his stock will be looked at very, very highly in club football,” Wilson said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me whatsoever if there are approaches made. Maybe not straight away, they’ve got to get this campaign out of the way. I’m sure Michael’s only ever been thinking about that.

“People will be watching his progress. He’s had so much success at a high level, with what’s available to him, his stock has gone a long, long way over the last few years.”

Wilson’s time in the top flight, which included spells with Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday, was during an era when British managers were far more prominent in the division.

Such opportunities are rarer now, yet Wilson thinks chairmen cannot overlook the fact O’Neill has tested himself against the best in the world such as Germany and Portugal in recent years.

“He manages against the pinnacle of world football,” he said.

“They know he can manage at that level, being against the best teams and you still have to prepare as well as you possibly can.

“It (a top job in England) won’t daunt Michael at all and it won’t impinge on people’s decisions or opinions of him when they look for him to go to jobs.”

Were O’Neill to lead Northern Ireland to Russia and stay for the tournament, he would become just the third boss to manage them at a World Cup.

Billy Bingham, who was in charge when Wilson and O’Neill were Northern Ireland colleagues, was at the helm on the previous two occasions in 1982 and 1986 and Wilson believes the current incumbent has a tougher task given the resources at his disposal.

“He had a lot more to choose from in terms of quality,” Wilson said of Bingham.

“Norman Whiteside, Pat Jennings, all those, they were top stars. They were available at the time so in that respect it’s a little bit different. Michael doesn’t have that wealth of choice unfortunately.”


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