If the tag of football’s forgotten man ever gets Sean Davis down, not to mention the knee operations, jaded dreams and reserve-team games in front of two men and a dog at Stevenage Borough, he knows where to look for perspective. “People talk about football being life and death, but the birth of my daughter carried me through the worst times,” the former England Under-21 captain said.
It was not an easy birth. “She was 10 weeks premature and it was touch and go at first,” Davis said. “It was a hard time — going to the hospital, training, going back to hospital. She was 50-50 and was in an incubator for six weeks, but now she’s fighting fit. It makes you realise what’s important and I’m trying to enjoy her life and mine.”
Davis needed Halle during what he described as a “disastrous” 18 months at Tottenham Hotspur. Shortly after her arrival in September 2004, he was injured, beginning a torrid period in which he had knee surgery, fell out with Martin Jol, the head coach, and saw Frank Arnesen, the former Spurs sporting director and the man who had labelled him a future club captain, depart to Chelsea.
The days when he was on the fringes of the England squad and the subject of a £5.5 million bid from Everton faded to sepia, so he is now seeking his football rebirth at Portsmouth. “The last time I was fully fit was when I first joined Spurs,” he said before tomorrow’s FA Cup tie against Liverpool. “I played eight games at the end of last season but I was injured at the time and was having pre-match injections , which didn’t help. I feel like I’m making up for lost time.”
Davis is not fooling himself. He missed all of pre-season because of more knee trouble, then was banished to Tottenham’s reserves. He refused to go out on loan but heeded the message. One outing all season, in a calamitous Carling Cup tie against Grimsby Town, reinforced it. Hence he jumped at the chance of joining Portsmouth because: “I’m not one of those who can get paid and be happy not to play. It comes from the heart.”
Now 26, he knows that he is a long way from where he wants to be. “I’m going through one of those periods where nothing is going right,” he said. “Balls going under my feet, making the wrong passes, holding on to the ball too long. It shows when you’re not fully fit. You don’t make the tackles or get tight, and you look tired, sluggish and heavy. The gaffer has been patient because if anybody else had performed like I did against Birmingham they probably wouldn’t be playing.”
Harry Redknapp, the Portsmouth manager, knows that there are mitigating circumstances and that Davis’s qualities will be pivotal to Portsmouth’s survival when he regains his match fitness. Davis, meanwhile, is just happy to be playing again.
The worst times were when he was injured. “I wasn’t training and had so much time on my hands I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
He started playing golf with his father — “he wasn’t too happy because he was having lessons and I beat him the first time I played” — but more niggling injuries and reserve-team football failed to fill the void. “We get paid good money to kick a ball about, but when it isn’t there the money doesn’t compensate,” he said.
When Davis handed in his transfer request at Fulham in 2003, having played for the club in all four divisions, he was on the threshold.
“People thought I was greedy, but I could have got more money if I’d stayed at Fulham,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to better myself, but I needed to get out of the comfort zone. Looking back, I should have stayed. Jol didn’t speak to me and I don’t feel I was given a chance, but I wasn’t knocking on the door because the team was doing well.”
He believes that Portsmouth can still escape — “if I didn’t the gaffer shouldn’t play me” — and each defeat pains him. “You lock yourself away, beat yourself up and think it’s the worst thing ever,” he said.
The forgotten man knows that the last bit is untrue, but it shows the passion. The comeback trail starts here.