Chance to renew rivalry spurs Davies to galvanise underdogs

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The Independent Football

They were country boys, teenagers bred in the sticks, and here they were up against David Beckham and Dwight Yorke, men who had won the European Cup.

Simon Davies was brought up in Haverfordwest, a town in Pembrokeshire that entirely lacks Newcastle's reputation for producing footballers, while Matt Etherington had grown up in Truro. They were playing for Peterborough and the nearest they might reasonably come to Old Trafford was a trip to Macclesfield. The invitation to train with Manchester United arrived from nowhere.

"We were playing at a tournament down in Southend and Barry Fry called us in," Davies said. "He just said: 'Manchester United want you to go up there training'. We were like, 'OK!'

"I played a game for the youth team, it was just a great occasion and I trained with the first team one day at the Cliff and went back to Peterborough afterwards. It just gave us confidence and, shortly after that, we went to Tottenham.

"It gave us a taste of the big time. It was another world, from the Third Division to United, the biggest club in the world. It was a great experience. I trained with them all - Beckham, Yorke, Cole - I couldn't believe it, really. I did OK. It was just an eye-opener to see how they played football, the pace of their game. It was a level you wanted to get to one day."

Etherington's career at Tottenham and, subsequently, West Ham United, never reached international level, but Davies' did and tomorrow, he will meet up with Beckham again and it will be as well for Wales if the midfielder is not overawed by the experience at Old Trafford.

Davies is part of Mark Hughes' core of Premiership-quality players and his absence through a series of shin and hip injuries has exacted a price. In 2002 he was voted footballer of the year for both club and country; Wales were top of their European Championship qualifying group, Italy had been beaten in Cardiff, since when... Welsh football has returned to earth.

Davies missed both legs of the hurtful Euro 2004 play-off with Russia and his absence in the painful draws with Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland was, arguably, as vital as that of Ryan Giggs. He claims that this is the best he has felt for some time, while admitting that, no, he is not match-fit.

"I'm nearly there. I've had three full 90 minutes now and one or two appearances off the bench," he said. "I've been training fully for eight weeks so I'm just about there. Of course I want to go back to the level of my breakthrough season. I did do well then but I had a bit of indifferent form, got injured and then it snowballed. But playing pain-free makes such a difference, it's the best I've felt for some time."

Pembrokeshire, on the south-west coast, is said to be the most English part of Wales, until the débâcle of 1997 it was the one area that could be guaranteed to send Conservative MPs to Westminster. "Where I'm from, nobody sounds very Welsh," Davies said. "Locally, there's not that strong a Welsh accent but you go 20 miles in and there is. I've lost the accent a little bit on the way too. I've been away for eight years now."

There might be a doubt over Davies' enunciation but there is none hanging over his desire to see the English beaten. "You ask any Welsh person and they are going to say that it's the biggest rivalry out there. It's a long time since England have played Wales at football but you can see the passion in the rugby games and it's going to be nice for the football fans to share that.

"It is a rivalry that is felt more in Wales than England because we are a smaller nation and are going to be underdogs. England play bigger games than us, they get to the big championships, so they have rivalries with Germany and Argentina. But for us, it's a chance to start up another rivalry and, hopefully, after these qualifiers we can play against England, Scotland and Ireland a lot more."

Davies was four years old when Wales last played England, a famous 1-0 victory at Wrexham, settled by a goal from Mark Hughes, who is now into his final week as Wales manager. "He told us that just because he's been appointed Blackburn manager, he hasn't changed," Davies said. "It's the same preparations, the same everything and he wants the same attitude from us and he'll have nothing less than that. Maybe there'll be a bit more because these are his last two games. It would be fitting to get results against England and Poland to see him off. We'll be giving everything we have, for him, for ourselves and for Wales."