Villa's 'Lampard' is a box-to-box hit

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Though their roots are different - Davis is from Northern Ireland, Cowans a product of North-east England - they already have things in common. Like Cowans (1972), Davis holds an FA Youth Cup-winners' medal (2002) and is a strong contender to be named PFA Young Player of the Year, as Cowans was in 1980. And while he cannot claim a first-team debut at 17 years old, the young Ulsterman's prodigious ability has made him, at 20, as integral to David O'Leary's midfield as Cowans was to Ron Saunders's planning at a comparable age.

Those who saw Davis pulling most of the strings in Villa's derby victory over Birmingham two weeks ago can bear witness to that. But where Davis is ahead is that he is already an established international, having made and secured a breakthrough for which Cowans had to wait until he was 24.

"As a midfielder myself, it is exciting to come across someone with Steve's ability and potential," Cowans said. "I remember him at 14, and you could see he had something then.

"He had all the attributes to be a top-class player - his touch, his composure on the ball, his ability to see a pass and his willingness to go past players. As a player, those are things you are born with, that you cannot teach. He has natural ability, and as a coach all you can do is try to polish it, help him to flourish.

"He is the complete midfielder, a box-to-box player in the Frank Lampard mould. He is a level- headed boy, a good listener, but so instinctive he is the kind you don't really have to coach."

The Lampard comparison is also made by Lawrie Sanchez, who drafted Davis into the Northern Ireland squad soon after his Villa debut in September last year, gave him his competitive debut against England at Old Trafford in March and now regards him as virtually an automatic choice.

"He is very mature in his game, very comfortable on the ball," Sanchez said. "He sees a pass well and because he is fairly small and with a low centre of gravity he has the ability to turn and jink and lose players easily.

"The goal he set up for David Healy against England in Belfast just showed what a fantastic footballing brain he has. Some players would not even have seen the opening, let alone been able to time Healy's run.

"He is also looking to score goals, and in that regard has the kind of talent that sets Lampard apart. He has got the world at his feet. I watched him play Chelsea recently in the company of Lampard, Essien and Makelele, and he did not look out of place."

The other quality that both Cowans and Sanchez emphasise is temperament. "He takes everything in his stride, even if he is up against the likes of Lampard or Steven Gerrard," Cowans added. "If he feels any pressure, he hides it very well." Sanchez has been impressed by his consistency. "It is not something you often see in a young player," he said. "Usually, after 10 or 12 games, a young player will suffer a little dip. At the start, it is the adrenalin pumping through that keeps you going, but when the novelty wears off the adrenalin drops a little.

"Then you have to know how to be a real professional, to maintain those high standards regardless of how you feel, and that only comes with experience. But Steven seems to have gone through that and just carried on."

Not 21 until New Year's Day, Davis will make his 30th Premiership start for Villa against Manchester City. A young man of relatively few words, he has so far offered few clues about the approach to the game that is serving him so well, although an interview soon after his debut provided some insight.

"I don't think it makes any difference whether you are a kid or not," he said. "There is obviously a bit of pressure when you play for the first team, but when the whistle blows you have to treat it like any other game."