Steven Davis: Unassuming and unsurpassed - retired captain just kept making NI fans happy

"You are my Davis, my Steven Davis, you make me happy when skies are grey."

Northern Ireland supporters' own Steven Davis-inspired version of the classic song has reverberated around Windsor Park for many, many years. And, boy, has he made them happy.

Influential roles in famous giant-killing wins over England and Spain. Two vital goals in the 3-1 victory that clinched the history-making qualification for Euro 2016. One of only four captains to lead the country to a major finals. Captaining Northern Ireland more than anyone else. And, of course, setting a new men's UK caps record and going on to make 140 international appearances.

And those are just the headline highlights of a player who - in a hugely impressive yet unassuming manner - has brought style, creativity, passion and the utmost quality to the Northern Ireland midfield for the best part of 20 years.

It's strange, though, how the closing line in the Green and White Army's song about their inspirational captain has taken on a poignant twist.

"Please don't take my Davis away". Now, sadly for those supporters, their Davis, 39, is away. And the end could not have been more cruel, or less fitting, with a serious knee injury picked up in training in December 2022 forcing the Rangers midfielder to eventually announce his retirement on Thursday.

Optimism had abounded throughout Northern Ireland football when Michael O'Neill returned for a second spell in charge just before that Christmas, with all the signs being that veteran Davis was set to carry on playing for his country when qualification for Euro 2024 got underway last March.

However, that injury has meant that the dismal 3-1 defeat by Greece in Athens in September 2022 - Ian Baraclough's final game in charge - would be the 140th and last time that the Broughshane native would play for his country. That number eight shirt, with which he has been synonymous for almost two decades, will no longer have his name on it.

He leaves behind a legacy that is unsurpassed in terms of numbers, with his ability, impact, longevity and loyalty surely placing him at the centre of any conversation around Northern Ireland's best-ever player.

Giant-killing spree after debut under Sanchez

David Healy and Steven Davis celebrate against Spain in 2006
Steven Davis was integral as Northern Ireland produced giant-killing performances against England and Spain at Windsor Park

The first of five international managers he would play under, Lawrie Sanchez gave the then 20-year-old Aston Villa midfielder his senior international debut in a what was a disappointing 1-0 friendly defeat at home to Canada in February 2005.

He made his competitive debut a month later in a 4-0 World Cup qualifier defeat by England at Old Trafford, but it was in September of that year - when England came to Belfast - that Davis truly announced his arrival on the international stage.

With 74 minutes on the clock, and with the game delicately poised at 0-0, he displayed unerring composure, intelligent vision and sublime technique to lift a pass over the visitors' defence for David Healy to control and lash home, securing a 1-0 win and one of the most famous night's in Windsor Park's history.

A year later, Davis was again at the heart of the midfield - this time joined by Sammy Clingan rather than Damian Johnson - as a Healy hat-trick saw Northern Ireland topple Spain, European and World champions-elect, 3-2 in Belfast.

Sanchez's men went on to record a home win over Sweden but, with Euro 2008 qualification within their grasp, Sanchez could not resist the offer a Premier League manager's job with Fulham, leaving Davis to experience his second Northern Ireland boss.

His time under Sanchez also saw Davis claim his first international goal - during a 3-2 home defeat by Wales in October 2005 - while in May 2006 he donned the captain's armband for the first time when he led the side out in a 1-0 friendly loss to Uruguay in the USA.

Wilderness and woe under Worthington

If Davis' first two years of international life were largely positive, the next four were more disappointing and frustrating under Nigel Worthington, who took over from Sanchez when he departed to become boss of Fulham.

Davis continued to be a regular in the Northern Ireland engine room but he and his team-mates were unable to achieve qualification for Euro 2008 despite the side going second in their group after victory over Liechtenstein in Worthington's opening game.

Away defeats to strugglers Latvia then Iceland struck savage blows to their qualification hopes and there was never any hint of these being revived in any of the next two campaigns.

A 3-0 defeat away to Italy ended a dismal Euro 2012 qualifying campaign and also Worthington's reign as manager. However, there was a personal milestone for Davis as he was handed the captain's armband in Worthington's penultimate match to mark the occasion of his 50th international cap.

Euro 2016 high and MBE honours

While something of a surprise decision amongst supporters, Michael O'Neill's appointment as Northern Ireland manager heralded a significant - if not immediate - upturn in fortunes for Davis and his international team-mates.

Despite former skipper Aaron Hughes coming out of international retirement, O'Neill stuck with Davis as his permanent captain. While the qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup never threatened to deliver a place in the finals, Northern Ireland followed it up by finishing top of their group and reaching the finals of Euro 2016 in France.

Given the freedom to attack from central midfield, Davis' quality and consistency throughout the campaign were key factors in driving the side to the finals. It was perhaps no coincidence that Northern Ireland's only qualification defeat - away to Romania - was the only game he was unavailable for.

And it was entirely fitting that Davis was front and centre on that momentous night at Windsor Park when Northern Ireland swept Greece aside with a 3-1 win that sealed qualification, with the talismanic skipper scoring twice on what was very much a landmark occasion in his stellar career.

Becoming only the fourth captain to lead Northern Ireland to a major finals, Davis was at the forefront as goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn gave O'Neill's men a historic 2-0 group stage win over Ukraine in the Lyon rain before bowing out to Wales in the last 16.

Ever the quintessential team player, the following summer saw the then 32-year-old Southampton captain awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to football, the fact that he first thought it was a joke when the call came being a further nod to his humility.

Play-off heartache before career-ending injury

By the time Davis was receiving his royal recognition, Northern Ireland were on their way to finishing runners-up in their World Cup qualifying group behind Germany and what would prove to be a hugely controversial two-legged play-off against Switzerland.

A tight and often scrappy first leg at Windsor Park looked to be heading for a scoreless draw until the referee adjudged Corry Evans to have handled, when the ball clearly hit his chest, with the visitors scoring the resulting penalty before going on to qualify at Northern Ireland's expense with a 0-0 draw in the return leg.

It was at this stage that Davis' influence within the Northern Ireland camp came to the fore, with O'Neill revealing that his ever-reliable captain played a leading role in persuading him to ignore the overtures from the Scottish FA and sign a new deal with Northern Ireland, which he duly did before leading them into Euro 2020 qualification.

O'Neill once again guided his country to a play-off spot, this time via the Nations League, but he had taken over as manager of Stoke City by the time the play-offs - rescheduled due to the Covid-19 pandemic - eventually came around in autumn 2020.

Under-21 boss Ian Baraclough stepped up to take over the senior side and, with Davis still the central launchpin of the team, they defeated Bosnia on penalties in the semi-final before a crushing defeat by Slovakia at Windsor ended dreams of another trip to a Euro finals.

Next for Davis and Baraclough was the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, that got off to a slow start but ended with an uplifting 0-0 draw at home to then European champions Italy.

Davis was again very much a central figure in the team for the 2022 Nations League campaign, but it would prove to be a disastrous one, with hugely disappointing defeats by Greece and Kosovo spelling the end for Baraclough's reign and that hugely-anticipated return of O'Neill in December of that year.

O'Neill spoke so enthusiastically at his unveiling about working with his former captain again, but it was only a matter of days later that Davis would suffer the knee injury that ultimately ended his playing career.

His name was a constant theme at press conferences throughout the failed Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, with Davis joining up with the squad on a few occasions offering brief hope that a miraculous recovery might happen. Indeed, O'Neill said towards the end of last year that he would like to see Davis on the pitch at Windsor Park again in some playing capacity.

Deep down, though, O'Neill, the rest of the players and most supporters will - although they will not have wanted to admit it - have known this day was coming. Retirement will almost always going to be the upshot of that injury.

Windsor Park will pay tribute to him at some stage, of that there is no doubt. And he will take to that pitch and applaud the Green and White Army again. Just not in that now iconic number eight top.

He's always be their Davis, though. And, boy did he make them happy.