Steven Davis: fresh talent can help Northern Ireland step up
Uefa Nations League B, Group 3: Northern Ireland v Bosnia & Herzegovina (Windsor Park, 2pm today)
A COUPLE of players close to their 39th year may be missing but captain Steven Davis believes fresh talent can help Northern Ireland step up onto a tournament stage again.
NI set off on the complicated, convoluted journey towards a possible host of venues for Euro 2020 without 38-year-old defensive stalwarts Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes.
However, 33-year-old skipper Davis has been impressed by additions to the panel over the past year, commenting: "I believe the squad is as strong as it has been in previous times. Obviously you've got some younger players coming in but you can see the impact the likes of George Saville and others have made in a short space of time.
"That's the challenge to the new players coming in, to put that pressure on the boys that have the jersey are ready and that competition is good for everyone."
Saville seems a cert to start in midfield, while 20-year-old Jamal Lewis may make his competitive senior debut at left-back after the international retirement of Chris Brunt.
The Norwich City lad may be the only debutant – although 21-year-old Bailey Peacock-Farrell could be in contention for the goalkeeper's jersey – so it's not surprising that visiting coach Robert Prosinecki expects a tough test today.
Speaking through a translator, he said: "We know very well the Northern Ireland team because they have played with almost the same squad in three qualification rounds and they have achieved a big success with the same team."
B & H are more changed, but the former Croatia star commented: "We have some new players, it was time to include them in the national team.
"With the younger players who have played very well in friendlies, I expect to qualify for the Euros."
Davis, typically, was more circumspect about his team's chances, even though manager Michael O'Neill was talking about elevation to League A in this new competition:
"I think it will be difficult," said 'Davo'. "There are two good sides against us [with Austria also in this section], so you would imagine the group will be relatively tight come the end of it.
"We all know we want to get off to the best possible start and we are ready to do that. We have a good record here and it's a new challenge for us."
The aim is to continue the progress Northern Ireland have made under O'Neill, acknowledges Davis: "We've spoken a few times about how difficult it was in the early days, to get the kind of consistency required - obviously we had a couple of big scalps, which gave us some belief.
"But the last few years of my international career have been the most enjoyable. The challenge after the Euros was 'Could we continue that on?' - and that's the challenge for us again: Can we go and set those standards again and keep that feel-good factor going?"
He hasn't been feeling particularly good about his club situation this year, admitting that his mood is "ultimately, frustration, as it is for any player who isn't playing, that's the aim every week you go to training and get yourself ready to play on a Saturday.
"But things in football can change very quickly as well, obviously I am coming off the back of the second half of last season where I was injured but the main focus during the summer and pre-season was getting myself right and fit and the body is feeling good and I am ready to go, I know what qualities I can bring to the team – sometimes you just need to be patient.
Davis has talked with his club boss Mark Hughes – but for now he's focussing on the international scene:
"It's quite open, we've had a chat, I played in a cup game the other night [League Cup against Brighton] and obviously it was good to get 90 minutes under the belt - and I look forward to getting stuck into the games here as well".