Davis: It’s our dream to reach Russia
Steven Davis on the verge of 100 international caps for Northern Ireland
Midfielder looks ahead to crucial World Cup play-off with Switzerland
Northern Ireland hoping to reach first World Cup since Mexico 1986
Northern Ireland’s home loss against ten-man Canada in 2005 would be a forgetful occasion for many wearing a green jersey that day, but not for Steven Davis. It was on that typically blustery February evening in Belfast where it all began for the current Northern Ireland skipper.
Twelve years on from making his senior international debut as a 20-year-old in that 1-0 defeat, the midfielder is on the verge of registering his 100th appearance for his country, which would make him the third person after Pat Jennings and Aaron Hughes to reach a century of Northern Ireland caps.
"On a personal level, it was great to finally make my debut," said the Southampton skipper, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. "It wasn’t the result we wanted, of course, but for me to be able to make my debut at Windsor Park – and to start the game, too – it was very special. I have great memories of that day."
The contrast in Northern Ireland’s fortunes when Davis made his international debut to now is remarkable. Then placed 111 in the FIFA/Coca World Ranking, that 2005 friendly defeat against Canada took Northern Ireland’s winless run at home to 11 games.
Now, Michael O’Neill’s men have encountered just one competitive loss in the last four years at Windsor Park, reached the knockout stages of UEFA EURO 2016 and are two games away from qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup™ since Mexico 1986.
"When I first came into the side, the team were struggling and over the years I’ve experienced the lows," Davis said. "But thankfully the last few years have been mainly positives and that makes us appreciate what we’ve achieved even more.
"I know how difficult it is to get consistent results at international level so what we've achieved is quite incredible. We want to keep that momentum going for as long as possible."
Russia 2018 dream Davis and Co certainly carried the momentum of reaching the last 16 in their maiden European Championship into the Russia 2018 preliminaries. Finishing behind world champions Germany to claim second spot in Group C, Northern Ireland are readying themselves for their first ever World Cup play-off.
It is Switzerland who stand in their way of reaching a first World Cup for three decades and Davis has called upon Northern Ireland’s passionate, green-clad supporters, known as the Green and White Army, to lend their usual unwavering support.
"We’ll make it as uncomfortable for Switzerland as possible," said the central midfielder. "Our fans have a huge part to play, they have done in every success that we’ve had. We’ll need that once again from them. As players, we need to go out there and give it our all. Our dream is at stake and we want to go and qualify for the World Cup.
"There’s a real belief that we can go out and do it but, at the same time, we’re not underestimating how difficult it’s going to be."
From Granit Xhaka to Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland present a formidable test. La Nati boasted nine wins out of nine in Group B before tasting defeat away to European kings Portugal, slipping to second spot in qualifying after the final matchday on goal difference.
Northern Ireland, though, will take confidence from knowing they have the experience of reaching a major tournament.
"The EURO was an incredible experience – one of the best experiences of my life," said Davis. "It meant so much to us all. But it also left us wanting more. We want that experience of going to a major tournament again. With how difficult it is to qualify for a World Cup and then go into a play-off against a nation in very good form, it would be a dream for everyone to get to Russia."