Michael O’Neill: Rangers have a ‘different player’ in Steven Davis

As comebacks go, Steven Davis’s redonning of Rangers colours on Wednesday night was more Frank Bruno than Frank Sinatra. The Northern Ireland international acquitted himself decently in the defeat at Kilmarnock but the loss ensures that the league visit to Livingston this afternoon and the rescheduled Scottish Cup fourth-round tie at Cowdenbeath on Wednesday assume monumental proportions.

Steven Davis in action for Rangers. Pic: SNS/Craig Foy
Steven Davis in action for Rangers. Pic: SNS/Craig Foy

In the highly improbable event of Steven Gerrard’s team failing to achieve the desired outcomes in these encounters, any real prospects of silverware from the season would be ended. The wisdom of the huge salary investments in Jermaine Defoe and Davis during this transfer window would be open to serious question in that domesday scenario.

But Michael O’Neill would place serious money on the 34-year-old midfielder proving to be worth every penny Rangers have committed to him across his two-and-a-half year contract. The Northern Ireland manager was instrumental in his international captain swapping fringe status at Southampton for a central role in Gerrard’s attempted rehabilitation of the Ibrox club’s fortunes.

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O’Neill is relaxed that the conversations he had with Davis about the benefits of a homecoming, and his chats with his former Coventry City team-mate and now Rangers assistant Gary McAllister, will be justified long-term despite his advanced football years. Only a plus as O’Neill sees it.

“There’s zero risk in bringing him in at this age. Rangers were his first preference, so he’s wanting to make a mark not only with what’s left of his international career, but also club football,” said the former Cowdenbeath assisant manager.

“I was delighted for him, we had been chatting about it for a while and I obviously knew he was unhappy with the situation at Southampton. Not getting game time was troubling him because it is not something he has encountered.

“We spoke about it and my advice was, ‘Go to a place where you really want to be and go to a team that has a chance of winning things’. That is exactly what he has done. He is playing at the top of the table, rather than joining another team where you are fighting for your life.

“The Steven Davis who came back to Ibrox is physically different from the Steven Davis who left. He was carrying a groin injury at that point of time. It wasn’t long after I got the [Northern Ireland] job and he was struggling a little bit, he just couldn’t get up to the pace of the game.

“I look at him now and he is a different player, he trains differently. His physical fitness is far higher, albeit he is six years older now. He is in fantastic condition. When you are younger, you think your ability is going to get you through, but he manages his fitness so well.

“He is more tactically astute. When you go to the English Premier you have to be. Possibly at the time Rangers were strong, having had a lot of success. When you have the best team and the better players there is maybe less of a tactical emphasis on how you play. He became better tactically, under Mauricio Pochettino, and he has had good exposure if you look at the managers he has played under since then, Ronald Koeman, Mark Hughes, Manuel Pellegrini.”

O’’Neill never considered that he could be cutting his own throat in championing a Rangers move for Davis. At 34, he is at an age where many players embarking on what they see as a last great hurrah might consider the need for total focus on the club environment to be at odds with also giving full commitment to their international side.

“We have not had any who have put club before international. We have not had that to be honest. [Gareth] McAuley is still turning up at 39, so is Aaron Hughes. We can’t get rid of them to be honest,” said the Northern Ireland manager.

“Steven has targets, he captained the team to the Euros, and was extremely disappointed as we all were to miss out on [the World Cup in] Russia. But I think it is 108 caps he has now and Pat Jennings has 119,

“When you look back, Steven Davis will be in the top five players Northern Ireland has produced. Possibly higher. To play as he did, through the bad times, he never didn’t turn up. He never pulled out of anything. In my time he’s maybe missed four games, one competitive game. Obviously if he tells me he wants to retire, I just won’t listen to that. He will still be sent a letter telling him to turn up.”