'A manager's dream': The story behind Steven Davis as he closes in on huge Rangers milestone
It was almost 13 years ago that a fresh-faced loanee from Fulham made his debut for Rangers in a UEFA Cup tie against Panathinaikos at Ibrox.
If the drab goalless draw against the Greek side in February 2008 would quickly be forgotten by most who witnessed it, for the then 23-year-old Steven Davis it was the night a lifelong ambition to play for the club he supported as a boy was realised.
Davis is now just one game away from his 300th appearance for Rangers, which should come against Motherwell at Fir Park on Sunday, and has been a hugely influential member of the side now closing in on the Premiership title under Steven Gerrard this season.
It has been a campaign of landmark achievements for the 36-year-old with both club and country, having overtaken legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings as Northern Ireland’s most-capped player.
Former Rangers defender and coach Jimmy Nicholl has worked professionally with Davis since becoming Northern Ireland assistant-manager in 2015 and is not in the least surprised he has become so highly valued by Gerrard.
“You can admire players for a long time, as I have always admired Steven, but it’s only when you work with them as part of a squad and see how they handle themselves in different situations that you fully appreciate them,” says Nicholl.
“With Steven, I quickly realised that not only is he a very good player but he has everything else to go with it as well.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been involved with some players who I haven’t really got along with or especially liked as people – but you are glad they are in your team, because they are so good.
“But with Steven Davis, he’s not only got all of the ability he shows on the pitch, but he’s got class off it. That’s what I like about him.
“He’s a manager’s dream because he very rarely complains about anything. For example, I remember Michael O’Neill telling him he wanted him to play further up the park for Northern Ireland, even though he was playing just in front of the back four with Southampton at the time, which is probably his favourite position.
“But there wasn’t even a murmur of dissent from Steven – he just got on with it and did it brilliantly. Whatever is for the good of the team, he will do it. Steven Gerrard will know the value of that and so will his team-mates.”
A happy return to Ibrox
Davis won eight major trophies during his first spell at Rangers, as well as playing in the 2008 UEFA Cup Final, before moving to Southampton in 2012 after the Ibrox club’s financial collapse.
“He came back to Rangers at the right time (in January 2019),” adds Nicholl. “I know it wasn’t ideal circumstances when he moved on in 2012 – some of the players who left got a bit of stick, but I think the vast majority of Rangers supporters could understand why Steven went to Southampton at that stage of his career.
“Now all of the hard work he has put in under Steven Gerrard over the last couple of years looks as if it is going to pay dividends this season.
“For him to win the title again with Rangers at 36 will be a great achievement and I think he still has plenty of football left in him yet.
“Any time I watch him for Rangers, it’s clear to see how well he complements the other midfielders in there.
“He’s not just restricted to that role of taking the ball off the back four, either. There are times with Rangers when he pops up on the edge of the opposition penalty area.
“His whole reading of the game is outstanding. He hasn’t got a great physical presence, like so many of the midfield players in the modern game who are good at breaking up the opposition play, but he’s still so effective at doing that too.
“He reads situations, knows where the danger is coming from. He’s just a really good all-round midfield player.
“It must be great for players like Glen Kamara and Joe Aribo to play alongside Steven, both in terms of learning from what he does and also in that they will feel more comfortable pushing forward into more advanced positions in the knowledge he is protecting things behind them.”
The quiet man
Davis is generally as understated off the pitch as he is on it, carrying out his media duties in an unfailingly polite but low-key manner never likely to generate any controversial headlines.
But Nicholl knows there is another side to the Northern Ireland skipper’s character which his team-mates also benefit from.
“He’s got this quiet demeanour which the public sees and that’s the way he is most of the time,” says Nicholl. “But he’s good fun as well, let me tell you.
“There have been times when he’s come to me during a Northern Ireland camp and asked if it will be okay with the manager if the lads go for a couple of beers.
“He organises it well, it’s always low-key but he makes sure the players can enjoy themselves together. He never takes liberties, he does everything the right way off the pitch – the same way as he does on it.
"He is just a class act, pure and simple. I was so pleased for him when he beat Pat Jennings’ caps record for Northern Ireland and for him to reach 300 games for Rangers is something else he can rightly take great pride from.”
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