IT didn’t take long for Keith Gillespie to appreciate why there had been so much excited chatter in Northern Ireland about the kid from Culleybackey who had just broken into the Aston Villa side when he first encountered him. 

In fact, after taking part in just one national squad training session with Steven Davis back in 2005, he confidently predicted that great things lay ahead for the diminutive midfielder.

“I didn’t know Steven, but I had certainly heard plenty about him,” said the former Manchester United, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United winger. 

“People were beginning to talk about him. He was doing good things at Villa. He was very quiet. But I could tell straight away he was a confident player. He was absolutely outstanding in training.

“I can remember talking to David Healy about him. I said: ‘This young lad can go a lot higher’. I thought he would end up at a Manchester United or somewhere like that. That didn’t happen, but the career he has had has been absolutely incredible.”

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Indeed it has. Davis, who made his debut for his country alongside Gillespie in a friendly against Canada at Windsor Park 16 years ago, is poised to make British football history tomorrow evening.  

The Rangers man will become the most capped player in the history of the isles, surpassing the record he currently holds jointly with former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, when he makes his 126th appearance for Northern Ireland in the Qatar 2022 qualifier against Bulgaria in Belfast.

Gillespie is delighted for his old team mate. “It is all credit to Steven,” he said. “He is a very level-headed lad. He works extremely hard and looks after himself. He has so much respect now because of what he has done in the game. That is why he became captain. He is a humble guy, but he deserves all the plaudits.”

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Yet, the 46-year-old, who played no fewer than 86 times for his homeland himself and is still turning out for Mid-Ulster Football League club FC Mindwell, believes that Steven Gerrard must take a share of the credit for his compatriot’s remarkable longevity at the highest level as well.

The Liverpool and England great retired back in 2016 when he was 36 – the same age that Davis is now – after a season in the United States with MLS franchise LA Galaxy. Gillespie feels he will know just how much he can demand of his midfield lynchpin. 

“Steve has probably been quite fortunate in his career,” he said Gillespie. “He doesn’t seem to pick up many injuries. That is testament to how he looks after himself.

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“When you start to lose that yard of pace in your thirties it can become a problem. It can be an issue even if you’re a defender. But when you’re a central midfielder pace isn’t a vital thing. Steve has got it upstairs. He knows the right times to run and the right times not to run because of the experience he has.

“He never had explosive pace anyway. He is a very good footballer who knows how to keep the ball and knows how to control and influence games. But it is important for him to have the right manager there at Rangers as well.”

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Gillespie continued: “I think it has been massive for Steve having Steven Gerrard, who has played that same position, there at Ibrox as well. He will remember how he was when he played at that age and knows how to manage him.

“I am sure there are times Steven Gerrard will go to him and say: ‘Have an extra day off and recover’. It is important to manage players when they get that bit older and he clearly is. Steve is still doing it at his age in Scotland. He has been one of the players of the season in the Premiership.”

Davis, who was out of contract at Ibrox in the summer, signed a one year extension with Rangers earlier this month. Gillespie knows how much his countryman is enjoying being back at the Govan outfit and is confident he will be determined to play on for as long as he can. 

“I think Steven Davis would have spent his entire career at Rangers if they hadn’t been demoted down to the Third Division in 2012,” he said. “I know how much he loves the club. He wouldn’t have left. There was unfinished busines there for him and that is why he went back.

“The attachment he has with Rangers is very obvious. He loves it inside out. He didn’t want to leave, but clearly he isn’t going to play in the Third Division. You had to respect his decision at that time. The fact they have now managed to win the league is something he will be absolutely delighted about.

“He has signed a one year extension so Steven Gerrard probably sees him as an integral part of his plans for next season too. It is incredible that Rangers have a player who has every chance of winning Player of the Year at 36.”

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Davis helped his boyhood heroes reach the final of the UEFA Cup after joining them on loan from Fulham in the January of 2008 and then went on to play in the Champions League group stages after making his move permanent that summer.

Gillespie suspects that his countryman, who Mauricio Pochettino compared to Andres Iniesta and Xavi last week, will be keen to have another crack at Europe’s premier club competition next term and is more than capable of holding his own against the continent’s finest.  

“Steve has played in big internationals against top class players who are regulars in the Champions League every year,” he said. “So he has shown he still belongs in that company with his country. It is a great opportunity for him. It is the competition you aspire to play in at club level.

“It is a great chance for him to go and play against some of the best players in the world at the age of 36. They will need a favourable draw to get into the Champions League, but they had a really good run in the Europa League and would have hoped to beat Slavia Prague and go further. It just wasn’t to be.

“But it has been a fantastic season for them in Scotland and in Europe and Steve has been a vital member of that.”

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