Steven Davis stresses the importance of making a good start against Italy

Ian Parker, PA
·3-min read

The odds may be stacked firmly against Northern Ireland going into Thursday’s opening World Cup qualifier against Italy but captain Steven Davis has underlined the importance of making the right sort of start to a new campaign.

Having been handed a tough draw in Group C alongside Switzerland, Bulgaria, Lithuania and the Italians, the hardest of all the fixtures comes first as Northern Ireland head to Parma to face a side unbeaten in 22 matches.

Northern Ireland’s only ever victory over Italy came during qualifying for the 1958 World Cup, but Davis said the team could not afford to write off their own chances.

“It’s huge because it sets the tone for the rest of the campaign and gives you a platform to build from,” he said.

“We are realistic to know how hard it will be to get a really positive result but we will do our best to do that.

“It’s important over the course of these first two games that we get some points on the board.

“We know from having success in the past that gives that real foundation to go and build on from there.”

The start of a new campaign represents a fresh start after the disappointment of November’s Euro 2020 play-off final defeat by Slovakia.

Manager Ian Baraclough will look to make his mark on the team having been thrown in at the deep end when he replaced Michael O’Neill midway through the last cycle, and Davis said the team were starting to take on a new identity.

“We have been working on a few different things in the last few camps we have been in in terms of the shape of the team and everybody knowing their roles under the new manager,” he said.

“We are looking forward to trying to put that into practice. It will be a real test for us but it is a good game for us to have as well.”

The night promises another landmark for Davis, who has broken a string of records in recent international windows.

His next two appearances will see the 36-year-old equal and then surpass Peter Shilton’s British record of 125 caps – though the Rangers midfielder does not want to make much fuss about it.

“It’s quite incredible to be in that position where I have that number of caps,” he said.

“It won’t be something I will be thinking about going into the game. It’s a byproduct of the match because the most important thing is to try and get off to a positive start in the campaign.

“I don’t really know how to sum it up in words. Breaking the Northern Ireland record was huge for me on a personal level but to be able to get the British one that is something I will look back on with great pride, especially when I finish my career.”

Davis has been integral to the success Northern Ireland have enjoyed over the past decade, but not even he has been around long enough to have played the last time they reached a World Cup back in 1986.

“I couldn’t put it into words what it would mean to me to play on the World Cup stage and that goes for everybody in the camp,” he said.

“To play in a major tournament whether it is the Euros or the World Cup is massive for a country of our size. Getting to the World Cup would be the pinnacle.

“That’s what you grow up watching and dreaming of playing in but we also know how difficult it will be to get there.”