Tim Springett wonders why Kevin Davies has gone downhill after a promising start to his career, and if it is already too late to do something about it
All the talk in Southampton concerns James Beattie’s prospects of earning an England call-up. Yet five years ago Kevin Davies was seen not only as Saints’ brightest hope but one of England’s. Now, however, he languishes in the reserves, his copious ability dimmed by a seemingly insurmountable crisis of confidence. He has gone from being an international star in the making to the scrapheap by the age of 26. How – and why – has this happened?
Davies, whose father Cyril played for the England deaf XI, shot to fame as a 20-year-old during Chesterfield’s FA Cup run of 1997. He scored a hat-trick as the Spireites won away to Bolton in round four and impressed as his team came mighty close to overcoming Middlesbrough in the semi-final. Inevitably Davies attracted the attention of clubs higher up the league, and Graeme Souness paid £750,000 for his signature once the season was over.
Davies wasted little time making his presence felt in the Premiership. Not only was he scoring goals in a side frequently missing Matt Le Tissier, whose injury problems were beginning in earnest, but he was creating his goals out of nothing, in the style of Le Tissier. A superb turn and shot against West Ham was followed by a spectacular run from halfway and a cool finish at Goodison Park. His strength, presence and physical stature belied his youth and, in the space of three weeks, he scored the only goals of televised home victories against Chelsea and Manchester United.
Though injury restricted him to only three further appearances in 1995-96, he had done enough to persuade Roy Hodgson, looking ahead to a European campaign with Blackburn, to splash out £7.5 million. Now, it seemed, the big time truly beckoned – he was even featured in the opening titles of Match of the Day, cutting a resplendent pose in his new employers’ kit. The spotlight was trained firmly on Kevin Davies – could he handle the pressure and deliver the goods?
Unfortunately for him and Blackburn, the answer was a resounding no. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t score; he virtually ceased to function and became the supporters’ prime scapegoat for Blackburn’s slide to relegation. Meanwhile Beattie, who had been a £1 million makeweight in the Davies transfer, ended the season as Southampton’s top scorer as the Saints pulled off perhaps their most unlikely escape act yet to cling onto their Premiership status.
His return south, early the following season, in exchange for Egil Ostenstad, was welcomed by Saints fans who hoped that coming back to familiar ground would spark a recovery of the outstanding form of his first spell. There were some encouraging early signs as he scored Saints’ last goal of the 20th century and the first of the 21st, but ultimately he was unable to dislodge Beattie as the first-choice centre-forward. His frustration manifested itself in a worsening disciplinary record – 22 yellow cards and one red during his second spell so far.
Having notched just two Premiership goals for Gordon Strachan, Davies has found himself out of the reckoning this season, with even midfielder Jo Tessem preferred in attack during one early-season injury crisis. A loan spell at Millwall merely amplified his plight – an early flourish was swiftly followed by injury problems which led to Davies losing his place and being sent back early, the Lions deciding he was too expensive to keep on the bench. One wonders what the future holds with Saints seemingly unwilling to tolerate such costly unproductivity and a transfer, possibly not involving a fee, looking certain. He will have to take a substantial wage-cut and the only direction is down.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is the readiness with which Davies seems to have accepted that he will not re-establish himself in Saints’ first team. Those in Southampton who have observed him off the field are unanimous that he is failing to apply himself as one would expect of a Premiership player. The question is whether this is wilful – whether he has settled for being a handsomely paid reserve – or the result of some kind of remediable psychological condition with its origins at Ewood Park. Many clubs use sports psychologists, but how many have the patience to try to overcome negative mental states of under-performing players? Could this represent Kevin Davies’ best hope of reviving his career? Maybe there is somebody out there somewhere who can help.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month