Football: Gifts of a Saint who got away

The youth movement: While Southampton profit from a dazzling discovery, Chelsea preach patience to their promising crop; Stephen Brenkley talks to a coveted striker once told he was not good enough

THERE are many reasons why Kevin Davies has invigorated this football season. He has scored plenty of goals, one of them blazingly spectacular. He has been diligent in chasing lost causes at the front and assiduous in tackling back. He has exhibited power and pace, luring defenders hopelessly out of position, and his enjoyment of it all has been transparent.

But not the least pleasing aspect of Davies's prosperity thus far in the Premiership is that he started his career in the lower divisions. The days seemed to have vanished when a lad could serve his apprenticeship at a small club before moving on to greater things above. If foreign imports have precluded some signings, the early spotting by the big clubs of richly talented youth has probably been a more decisive factor.

This merely begs the question of how a player of Davies's calibre spent four seasons at Chesterfield in the Second Division (though he is still only 20) before Southampton signed him last May. The price of pounds 750,000, which now seems the sort of bargain that people camp out on the pavement to acquire in the January sales, compounds the mystery. Manchester United, of all clubs, will not take him lightly at Dell tomorrow night as they seek to consolidate the cavernous gap at the top of the league and may even be a shade wary of an unknown quantity.

"I wasn't honestly given any option," said Davies. "I'd played for Sheffield Boys and I'd been along to train with Sheffield United but nothing came of it and I was simply told I wasn't good enough. I played in a match for Sheffield against Chesterfield Boys and they approached me."

Less than a year later, when he was still six months short of his 17th birthday, he went on as a substitute for the first team. He was never again out of the selection reckoning and before the season was out he was a regular in the side. But there he remained for four seasons.

"There was talk of bigger clubs coming in but I got injured for a while and my name was out of the papers and all that and interest seemed to fade," he said, reflecting on his astronomical rise since August. "There were times when you think you're never going to get a chance at showing what you can do at a better level but they were great times at Chesterfield. I learned a lot."

Davies was to make the papers again all right as Chesterfield made their way to the FA Cup semi-finals. He leapt to prominence by scoring a fourth- round hat-trick at Burnden Park against Bolton who were then running away with the First Division. He was still only 19 and he demanded to be watched for the rest of the season. As soon as it was over Southampton came calling. Graeme Souness, who signed him, was soon to depart but his replacement, David Jones, had come from Chesterfield's Second Division rivals Stockport. Acquainted with the young centre-forward's style, he could not but help but be enthused.

When you consider he managed only 22 goals in 129 matches for Chesterfield, Davies's Premiership record of eight so far is impressive. The stunning strike he scored at Goodison Park after a fearless run at the Everton defence was voted goal of the month. He has also been Carling Player of the Month, has signed a lucrative boots deal with Adidas and has been selected for the England Under-21 squad.

"I can't tell you why it's all gone quite as well as it has," he said. "When I was given the chance I was determined not to throw it away but it's surprised me a bit the way the goals have been going in. Now I'm disappointed I don't score if a couple of games have gone by. It's all to do with that old thing, confidence. When you've got it then you don't want to lose it.

"But it's not just the goals. I feel like I'm making better runs, doing it more forcefully. Strength has always been important to my game and in the Premiership I know you've got to keep running. Sometimes you can be on the halfway line and almost admiring the pace of the opposition as they attack and then you realise you'd better get back and help out."

Davies's early success is especially admirable considering how much he missed home at first. Salary apart, he was like any other 20-year-old going to a new home by himself hundreds of miles away: lonely. The long, regular afternoons after training meant long, regular phone calls to South Yorkshire. Now he has a flat with a couple of pals and his sister has come south to look after him (he gibbed but only half-heartedly at her role), his effectiveness can only increase.

"I love playing," he said. "You seem to get more rest than in the Second Division. I can never wait for the next game." And he added, perhaps with the innocence, albeit refreshing, of youth: "Man United, bring 'em on."

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