Kevin Davies: 'I knew I'd be booked. Fergie had done his job'
The Brian Viner Interview: Sir Alex Ferguson has singled him out for 'bullying' and he regularly tops the 'most penalised player' charts, but ahead of tomorrow's visit to Old Trafford Bolton's captain is keen to explain why he always plays the game in the right spirit
Friday 16 October 2009
Sir Alex Ferguson has had other fish to fry these past few days, but his usual tactic in the run-up to a Manchester United v Bolton Wanderers game is to put it about that Kevin Davies, the Wanderers captain and centre-forward, is an aggressive so-and-so who needs watching as much by the officials as by the United defence. "Two years ago it was spread all over the papers," says Davies, with a rueful smile. "All this stuff from Fergie about me bullying and kicking. And I went there and hardly made a tackle, because I knew I'd be straight in the book. So I suppose he did his job. That's what Fergie's good at, isn't it?"
Maybe, but if Davies is suggesting that referees subconsciously allow themselves to be primed by the United manager before matches at Old Trafford, then he and Bolton could hardly be arriving at the Theatre of Dreams at a better time, with Ferguson's stock with Premier League officialdom at an all-time low following his broadside concerning Alan Wiley's fitness, apology or no apology.
"At Old Trafford last year we had a penalty given against us that was never a penalty in a million years," Davies adds. "Big teams so often get those decisions, don't they? It was 0-0 until then, and we'd been working so hard. That penalty just knocked the wind out of our sails. I don't know whether some referees are maybe intimidated by going to Old Trafford. I don't know why they should be." Davies gives a guileless shrug, but it occurs that perhaps he is attempting to out-Fergie Fergie: imply to the media that referees go weak-kneed in front of the Stretford End, and maybe one of them will show just how unintimidated he is.
Whatever, we are sitting in the spacious front room of his handsome farmhouse, high up on the bleak moors overlooking Bolton, a good place for a poacher to turn gamekeeper. It is just after 2pm and he has been home from training for an hour or so, fitting in an interview with The Independent before he has to make the school run. He is an amiable, gently spoken man, off the pitch at any rate. On the pitch, as Ferguson and all other Premier League managers know, he is nothing if not combative. Following Bolton's creditable 2-2 draw with Tottenham two weeks ago, in which Davies scored his team's second goal, Harry Redknapp considered his potential worth as an international. "People might look at him and think he's not 'England', that's he not fashionable, but he's a proper centre-forward," the Spurs manager said. "He's excellent, he just knows how to play, he backs into people, he uses his body."
Such praise was typical, added Redknapp's Bolton counterpart. "Every manager, bar none, when they come in for a drink afterwards, says they are glad they don't have to face that kind of player every week," said Gary Megson. "If Kevin Davies were in an England shirt and utilised in the right manner, he would be a huge threat."
Well, Fabio Capello was at the Reebok that day, and indeed he selected Davies in a couple of initial England squads last season, but there was no room for the Bolton captain once they were pared down. "There was one time when five or six strikers were out and I thought 'I've got a chance here'. But they called [Gabriel] Agbonlahor out of the Under- 21s. That's when I gave up on it [an England career]. I'm really pleased that [his team-mate] Gary Cahill's got involved. I've watched him develop and he's come on really well. But it's just not happened for me."
This might be England's loss, because as Redknapp and Megson implied, there are few who so embody the virtues of the old-fashioned English centre-forward, even stirring the odd memory among older Bolton fans of the "Lion of Vienna" himself, the great Nat Lofthouse. Moreover, Reebok regulars will tell anyone who listens that "super Kevin Davies" is not remotely the "dirty player" he is often made out to be, and yet there is a statistic that nags at his reputation and hasn't been invented by Sir Alex Ferguson: in his six years at Bolton he has committed more fouls than any other Premier League player in the same period, topping the list of most penalised players in three successive seasons.
"The way I play there are going to be fouls," he says, equably, when I bring this up. "If you're challenging for long balls 20 or 30 times, it's inevitable. But at home against Stoke [last month] I got a yellow card from Mark Clattenburg [coincidentally in charge at Old Trafford tomorrow] for diving, and I just couldn't believe that. I was gobsmacked, to be honest with you, because he knows I'm an honest player. I thought I was getting up for a free-kick for us, but he booked me. That was just embarrassing, and it meant I was treading on eggshells for the rest of the match."
There is scarcely anything worse, in Davies' own book, than diving. "It's something I can't do. I don't know whether I'm a bit too proud or what, but I find it impossible to do. The foreign players are a lot better at it. People like Stelios [Giannakopoulos] and El Hadji Diouf can get you a foul, and they are fouls, but there's minimal contact. Foreign players are probably told to go down a bit more than we are, but it's not something I've ever been told to do. I find it embarrassing. Unmanly."
This is stirring stuff, but Davies surely doesn't need me to cite examples of Englishmen going flying in the penalty area, after negligible or even no contact. The notion that it is a uniquely foreign disease doesn't wash any more. And while I don't doubt his contempt for the practice, what if it is 1-1 at Old Trafford tomorrow and one of his team-mates, of whatever nationality, pinches a last-minute penalty with a bit of dramatic licence? Wouldn't he condone it, as the end justifying the means?
"I can't think of any time when I've been playing for Bolton and we've used it to gain an advantage," he says, evasively. What, not even when he played with Diouf, now over the moors at Blackburn Rovers?
"He's a very clever footballer. He knows how to induce a tackle. He's cute. That's different from cheating."
He has also been known to to spit at his opponents, and even at opposing fans. That's not cheating either.
"Yeah. He's a character."
But five years ago when Diouf spat at the Portsmouth captain, Arjan de Zeeuw, Davies was playing alongside him. Did it not appal him, as a fellow who considers diving "unmanly", to be wearing the same shirt as a player who uses phlegm as a weapon?
"Well, I think a couple of the lads had a word with him. But everyone's got a different personality. He can be a bit brash."
Failing to provoke much condemnation of a former team-mate, I move on to another curse of the modern game, the transparent feigning of injuries. What does Davies make of Didier Drogba, just to pluck an example out of the blue, hitting the turf in almost every game he plays as though he has just stopped a bullet?
"If I'm watching on television I shout at the screen. Someone his size, his strength, I just don't understand it. Since I've been at Bolton I've had three fractures, and I played on with all of them. I fractured my cheekbone when Hermann Hreidarsson elbowed me against Charlton about three years ago, and he got sent off, but I didn't go down. Then in the second half I jumped with one of their players and brushed him with my forearm, and he went down screaming. So I got sent off. That was a little bit disappointing. I think referees need to do their homework a bit more. As players we know which other players go down easily, and I think refs need to be aware, too."
Far be it from me to bracket Davies with Ferguson, but it's probably fair to conclude that he is not the greatest admirer of football's whistleblowers. His first taste of the big time came at Chesterfield, then in the third tier of English football, in 1997. The Spireites famously reached that year's FA Cup semi-final and only lost to Middlesbrough in a replay, after drawing 3-3 at Old Trafford, a match in which 20-year-old Davies, inspired by the sight of his boyhood hero Bryan Robson in the opposition dugout, ran the Boro defence ragged. "And we were done by a refereeing decision there too [David Elleray disallowing a perfectly valid goal with Chesterfield already 2-1 up]. But it's still one of the best memories of my footballing life. I still probably think about it at least once a day."
From Chesterfield Davies went to Southampton, and thrived, but in July 1998 Roy Hodgson, then at Blackburn, paid £7.5m for him. It was an expensive price tag he never wore comfortably. "I never thought of it as a burden," he insists, "it's just that I was never happy in the dressing room. It was a poor dressing room, with too many cliques. Me and Chris Sutton didn't get on. It just didn't work out."
Another, less successful spell at Southampton followed, until Sam Allardyce took him on a free transfer to Bolton. It was an inspired signing, and Davies felt immediately at home. "The team was 80 per cent foreigners, but everyone mixed. Jay-Jay Okocha, [Youri] Djorkaeff, [Ivan] Campo, they were all brilliant. The only person who might have disrupted it was [Nicolas] Anelka, but he didn't."
The team spirit continues, he says. "We have a good blend of youth and experience, and we're aiming for a top 10 place this season. We didn't start as well as we would have liked, but there were no panic buttons."
His own robust form is not the least significant factor in the steady upwards climb that has put Bolton in 13th place, and even if Fergie issues the usual warning before kick-off tomorrow, Davies intends to play with his customary muscle.
On the other hand, any striker who turns 33 next birthday must have half a mind on life after goalscoring. Might he one day visit Old Trafford as a manager? He smiles. "Maybe. I want to stay in the game and I did a residential [coaching] course with Andy Cole, Danny Mills, and a few others. If I got the opportunity to manage, I would have to give it a go."
In the meantime, I venture, admiring his marvellous westerly view and his home's expensive fixtures and fittings, he has done very nicely out of the game. He shows me to the front door. "We're only renting," he says, but I think he's having me on. Simulation, you might say.
Wanderer's path: Davies details
Kevin Cyril Davies
Born: 26 March, 1977, Sheffield
1997-98, 99-03 Southampton
1998-99 Blackburn Rovers
2003 Millwall (loan)
2003- Bolton Wanderers
Three England Under-21 caps
Quiz question: Kevin Davies is one of six Englishmen who have cost at least £7m in a single transfer and not represented their country. Who are the other five? Answers below
Answers to quiz question: Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies (both bought by Aston Villa from West Ham and West Bromwich), Anton Ferdinand (Sunderland from West Ham), Dean Richards (Spurs from Southampton), Carl Cort (Newcastle from Wimbledon).
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