Like most things, reaction to Kevin Davies' England call-up for Tuesday's match against Montenegro is refracted by context. Before it happened, his absence from international consideration despite his pivotal contribution at Bolton Wanderers made him a popular pick on best-players-who've-never-represented-their-countries lists. When it happened, Davies himself -- 33 and thinking about his testimonial -- thought it was a windup. And after it happened, fans wondered whether to be pleased or perturbed by Fabio Capello's choice.
Following this summer's World Cup debacle, Capello's stay of execution was supposed to usher in a new era in which England would shrug off the burden of expectation and blood its youngsters for the future, with immediate success unnecessary, though welcome. It's hardly surprising that the manager hasn't lost his taste for a hardworking second striker overnight, but Emile Heskey's retirement and Bobby Zamora's injury was expected to make room for Newcastle's No. 9, Andy Carroll.
The fact that the 21-year-old Carroll made neither the U-21 nor the senior England squad is a little strange, but then, he didn't start Newcastle's last match either. He's still young and his career is ahead of him. By contrast, Davies' call-up has the whiff of a lifetime achievement award -- a we-really-ought-to-have-done-this-sooner nod from the FA that will probably result in a second-half substitute appearance, a generous round of applause and a story to tell the grandkids.
Having long given up on England, Davies would be beaming from ear to ear even if he were sent on in the 89th minute. And who could blame him? For the last seven years he has been Bolton's most consistent performer, earning three club Player of the Year awards (despite scoring no more than 12 goals in a season) while being ignored by three England managers. That cap would take pride of place on the mantelpiece.
Davies' claim on an international place has long seemed diminished by his reputation for playing the game on the wrong side of feisty. According to official statistics, Davies has committed more fouls in the last seven seasons than any other Premier League player. Bolton's unreconstructed, route-one soccer under Sam Allardyce (and then Gary Megson) didn't help.
The image of Davies is one of a stereotypically -- and thus unfashionably -- English forward: tall and well built, making the most of such physical attributes over and above skill. There's no doubting that Davies knows how to use his physique to his advantage, but it seems an odd stick to beat him with when England has taken at least one of Heskey or Peter Crouch into competitive internationals for the last decade.
Heskey didn't travel to the 2006 World Cup but made the cut this summer. As well as scoring 50 percent more league goals in the four intervening seasons, Davies created more than twice as many as Heskey -- notably for Nicolas Anelka, who scored 10 goals in 18 starts in his last season at the Reebok.
When Davies burst on to the Premiership scene 13 years ago, few would have guessed that his international credentials would come down to whether he was a better clogger than Heskey. Having signed his first professional contract days after his 17th birthday, Davies set on the road to the top flight by making a dramatic impact at the fourth division's Chesterfield FC.
"Great physique, pace and strength, great control of the ball, ability to run at speed with it -- these were his natural gifts," said John Duncan, the coach who signed him and now the manager at Loughborough University in the Midland Alliance. "What he combined with that was a good head and a capacity to learn, pick up the professional side of the game and make himself into a productive player."
Davies was top scorer in his first season, helping Chesterfield to promotion. "He could hold his own in the tough rigors of the lower divisions," Duncan said. "Up into the next level he gained the respect of everybody because he could handle it no problem, from a young age." In his final season -- still only 19 -- he would be the architect of Chesterfield's best FA Cup campaign, scoring a hat trick against Bolton on the way to the semifinal in 1997.
In the summer of 1997, the then-Southampton manager Graeme Souness paid $1.2 million for Davies -- making the deal quickly after spotting that Arsenal manager George Graham was also keeping tabs on the young forward. By November of his first season with Southampton, Davies had made his name with a fantastic solo goal against Everton and debuted for England's U-21s. He was the league's new hot young thing.
Within a season he'd won a $11.2 million move to Blackburn Rovers, but it was the beginning of the soggy middle of Davies' career. He scored twice in his first (and only) season at Ewood Park as Blackburn was relegated. Though he'd been hospitalized with a throat infection, there was little empathy as Davies made his way back to the south coast in a deal for Egil Ostenstad.
In another four seasons at Southampton, Davies -- homesick and stung by his failed "big-time" move -- rarely threatened to trouble England's management team, eventually being shipped to Millwall on loan. He scored three goals in nine appearances, but his days as an England prospect looked spent.
Allardyce had nothing to lose when he took Davies to Bolton on a free in 2003, but he recognized that whatever the goal-scoring stats said, Davies was a player who could make things happen up front. Wanderers had just survived the drop the previous season, with only one team (last-place Sunderland) scoring fewer away goals. Davies scored 10 in his first season, including two last-gasp away winners, and created another eight; Bolton finished eighth.
"I think he's been capable of playing for England for a good few years now," said Duncan, whose pride at seeing a Chesterfield alumnus so elevated is evident. "Kevin's doing all the spade work at Bolton. If you're taking up positions to feed other players into chances, then it isn't that easy [to be the scorer]. But he's proved he's got the technique and the temperament to score, and he's getting more and more goals as he gets older."
Whether he gets the chance to show as much Tuesday remains to be seen -- it looks likely that Crouch will partner Wayne Rooney. But one of Montenegro's strengths is the central defensive partnership of Marko Basa and Miodrag Dzudovic, which means a Plan B could be important.
In addition to his strength and guile, Davies has a knack of producing telling touches and measured passes in the final third. Last season he laid on a whopping 81 goal-scoring chances. He may not be the kind of player England supporters fantasize about, but England is far from fantasy material. If Basa and Dzudovic prove difficult to break down, there are worse options than giving Davies 20 minutes to test their resolve.
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