Holland manager Ronald Koeman improved my game says Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis
FAMILIAR names and faces adorn the press room of the Feyenoord Stadium, among them Ruud Gullit, Leo Beenhakker, Wim Jansen, Ernst Happel, Arie Haan, Wim van Hanegem, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Jaap Stam – and Ronald Koeman.
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis knows the latter well, and also his current Dutch counterpart Virgil van Dijk, both from the midfielder’s days at Southampton.
Netherlands manager Koeman was full of praise for the 34-year-old, commenting: “I think if you are talking about football quality he is the best player on Northern Ireland.
“I have been with Steven at Southampton for a couple of years. Then he had more of an attacking role and now he’s more of a defensive midfielder but he has incredible footballing instincts, incredible technique.
“He has aged a little bit but he’s still very important. I would like to shake his hand tomorrow before the match, and then hopefully again after the match with a smile.”
Now with Rangers, Davis returned the compliments, saying: “I have a lot of respect for Ronald. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with him and my game improved and progressed.
“It was an enjoyable period for me at club level. I was disappointed to see him leave in the end.”
He had high praise for van Dijk too, who has recently been voted Uefa Player of the Year and runner-up in the Fifa version, saying of the defender: “It doesn’t surprise me the level he has got to. He’s gone to a new level since going to Liverpool, but having trained with him on a daily basis you could see the game came relatively easy for him.
“It’s going to be formidable to try to get past him. He is very clever in his defending and is very strong with his physical attributes as well.
“He’s a top player and I’m delighted to see it’s going so well for him.”
Asked if there was anything the 28-year-old couldn’t do, Davis replied: “I’m not sure I have seen too many weaknesses, having trained and played with him.
“You obviously see the way he defends, he has the physical attributes to out-run most people and he is very strong as well.
“He tends to put the onus back on the attacking player and makes them make decisions.
“You don’t often see him going to ground, if ever, he always stands up, that is why he is a clever defender. Usually it is the attacking player who makes the wrong decision and he reads the game well.
“He is a top player and I can only see him getting better.”
In a country known for its artists, van Dijk is a Dutch master of the defensive game, as Davis ruefully acknowledged: “The annoying thing is that the game seems to be so easy for him.
“Whenever I was playing with him everyone else seemed to be working hard and everything came so easily for him.
“I am delighted for him and how his career has progressed and I am sure he will go on to have more successful years.
“I’ve not spoken to him recently but he was a good lad to have in the dressing room. He was one of the leaders. He has taken that on with the captaincy of the national team as well.”
As ever, Davis lauded the ‘Green and White Army’ too, with 3,500 visiting fans expected in De Kuip tonight.
“The fans travel in their numbers wherever we go and give us all that support. I can’t relay enough how important that is to us as a group and we appreciate it,” he said.
“The backing we get is unbelievable home and away. That pushes us on and is a big part of any success we have.
“I knew that they would be looking forward to this trip and hopefully we can put in a performance that makes them happy.”