Davies grateful for chance to shine at Bolton

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The Independent Football

On An afternoon when the FA Cup properly begins, Kevin Davies is a reminder that even for those who reach journey's end in six months' time, there can still be plenty of pain.

Davies twice came close to appearing in an FA Cup final. The first was a glorious achievement, as part of a remarkable Chesterfield side which held Middlesbrough to a 3-3 draw in the 1997 semi-final, that would almost certainly have been won had David Elleray not ruled out a perfectly good fourth goal. By the time they were beaten in the replay at Hillsborough, in Davies' native Sheffield, Chesterfield, a team that finished 10th in the Second Division, had played eight matches and been watched by 123,000 people.

His reward was a move to the Premiership with Southampton and in the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup, some experienced commentators thought him the best long-term partner for Michael Owen. He was then 21 years old.

This year, Kevin Davies again just missed an FA Cup final appearance. Some 90 minutes before Southampton kicked off against Arsenal, Davies was informed by Gordon Strachan that he was not worth even a place on the bench. He had played in four of Southampton's Cup ties, always as a substitute, but had scored the vital equaliser two minutes from time in the fourth round against Millwall. Since he already knew the Southampton manager had no interest in giving him a new contract, there was a certain sobering finality to it all. Next month he would be unemployed. He was then 26 years old.

"I think Strachan knows I am a good player but there was something personal between me and him," Davies reflected. "He said that it was to do with something other than me as a footballer. I proved in training and reserve games that I could do it but I didn't get a start until the second-last game of the season [a 6-1 demolition by Arsenal at Highbury just before the FA Cup final].

"James Beattie had been scoring a lot of goals but the other strikers had done nothing and for me not to start before this was a bit strange. I knew two months before the final, in March, what my future was. The chairman had a meeting and told my agent and the only reason I carried on at Southampton was that we were in the Cup and the manager said he wanted me to play a part.

"Given the players we had, I thought I would have made the bench. After the Cup final we had a friendly away at Aberdeen and I was told there that when we got back he [Strachan] couldn't offer me anything. I've not seen any of the boys since then and after spending five years at Southampton, that's very hard.

"A Cup final for an English player is the ultimate thing you dream of. Just being sat in the stadium not being part of it while your family and friends are in the stands having come to Cardiff expecting you to be playing, is heartbreaking."

With football's finances in freefall, the summer of 2003 was no time to be looking for work but Bolton under Sam Allardyce have long been a club adept at salvaging stranded careers and putting up with any attendant "baggage".

"Maybe he had too much too early, that's the reason why he's ended up where he is now," said Allardyce's assistant, Phil Brown, who was on Bolton's coaching staff when Davies, at his buoyant youthful peak, scored a hat-trick for Chesterfield at Burnden Park. "I'm of the opinion we can get him back to where he was and make somebody pay a lot of money for him again. I think managers had lost faith in him.

"He came to us a little bit overweight but his response to the regime we've put him through has been quite phenomenal. We took him to La Manga and he was training four times a day and that was on the back of scoring three goals in six games. He responded against Blackburn with a fantastic performance against one of his former clubs."

This afternoon it is Southampton at the Reebok Stadium and, if he can dazzle as he did at Blackburn, a club where he memorably and expensively failed, his point will have been well made. His year at Ewood Park was an endless winter. The size of the £7.5m fee Roy Hodgson paid for him in the summer of 1998 weighed heavily, especially when Hodgson was sacked, and he failed to gel with a fractious dressing-room. Davies suffered persistently from throat problems which he thought were down purely to the stress of the move, which many thought would compare to Alan Shearer's transfer from The Dell to Ewood six years before. By the time he was sold back to Southampton, one newspaper had cruelly labelled him Blackburn's worst-ever player.

"I have no regrets, none at all, I am a harder person because of it," he reflected, agreeing with Brian Kidd's assessment that it was the players, those Kidd dubbed "the rubber dinghy men", who doomed Blackburn to relegation four years ago. "The Blackburn experience was a difficult thing to take, although compared to Southampton, it seems such a distant memory. At Blackburn it was the dressing-room which sent us down; no real togetherness, it was all about individuals and certainly there was no team spirit. It showed on the pitch."

With Davies and Kevin Nolan often the only Englishmen in Allardyce's starting line-up, you might have imagined that real togetherness would be even more elusive at Bolton than ever it was among the liferafts at Ewood Park. Strangely, Davies says no, not even when Jay-Jay Okocha criticised his team-mates for not trying in the wake of the 6-2 humiliation at Manchester City last month. Davies thought it necessary and last Saturday, inspired by Okocha, Bolton achieved their first victory at Tottenham since the days when Nat Lofthouse led their attack. "Bolton have put a big arm around me, made me feel wanted," Davies said. "The biggest confidence boost they could give me is to pick me."