Keinan Davis’ route to Premier League football

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Quiffs to comb-overs, top-knots and tapers, learning the ropes of barbering wasn’t to be the fulfilling profession for a young lad in Stevenage whose dreams in football were rapidly fading.

Making the cut in professional football is never easy and quite often the beginning of a damaging slide for youngsters in an industry rife with greed and opportunism.

Out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of 9, less than half of 1% make it, that’s a success rate of 0.012% across the academy system, according to popular studies.

From where he derives, Hertfordshire’s motto “trust and fear not” never left a grounded, humble Keinan Davis as he embarked on his eccentric journey to top-flight football, one that was hanging by a hair in 2015.

Following his release from Stevenage in 2015 for ironically being too petite and not at the level of the club making a fist of immediate promotion back to League One, Davis moved 16 miles north of the Lamex Stadium to non-league club Biggleswade Town.

A 2,000 seat capacity Carlsberg Stadium probably evokes enough imagery of its own with grass-roots fairy tales including popular protagonists Jamie Vardy, Michail Antonio and Charlie Austin treasured in these parts. Davis is one of their own.

Two turnstiles welcome avid ground-hoppers underneath and wooden Biggleswade Football Club plaque, in-front of a concourse unsuitable for a 2m social distance separation. Davis rediscovered his love for the game in the lowly depths of a football pyramid so cruel to him only years before.

The original influence

The then 17-year-old was climbing the notoriously punishing ladder with support from a coach that believed in his ability.

“Throughout my career, my old manager Dave Northfield at Biggleswade Town, he made a huge impact on my career”, Davis told VillaTV.

“He was massive for me.

“There were times when I was thinking I didn’t really want to play anymore and he told me I was good enough to get into an academy, and as long as I kept playing there I’d get the chance because we used to have friendlies with different academies to see if we could get scouted. It kept me going.”

At a time where football was more of a hobby rather than a future profession, Davis was vulnerable to slipping out the net altogether. It’s a cutting reality for thousands of youngsters up and down the country, stockpiled in academies for commercial gain.

“The first thing Stevenage said was I didn’t reach any of the achievements they expected, and the other thing was that I was too small and not physically ready to play for their team,” Davis revealed in 2018.

Only a few years prior to lifting the lid on his lower-league rejection as a teenager, Davis was preparing to make a career away from football.

“I was just a bit lost really. All my life I was playing football and my mind wasn’t anywhere else.

“I spoke to my parents and they said I just needed to get a job, so I worked at my cousin’s barbershop and did a course in college. I thought my football wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I was just playing for Biggleswade for a bit of fun because I still loved football.

“When I was 17, I was doing a barbering course at college alongside playing for Biggleswade in midweek. I could never have imagined back then that things would happen so quickly and that I’d be where I am now.”

It’s been a meteoric rise for Davis, who despite an injury-riddled past two campaigns has earned two professional contracts at one of the most successful clubs in English football.

Earning his stripes

He was certainly no bigwig before joining the Villa, but Davis has been earning his stripes and knuckling down to impress academy coaches, as well as former and current bosses Steve Bruce and Dean Smith.

Nothing has been guaranteed for the forward who led the line for Villa on their return to Premier League action after the Coronavirus break. At one stage, a route to the USA seemed a real possibility.

“I’d been speaking to Dave Northfield and thinking what I should do because I was getting older,” Davis said.

“They were organising clips to send over to American universities to see if any of them were interested.

“I had colleges asking and all I had to do was pick one and that would have been it. It was a matter of weeks but then Villa came in and the schedule just changed.”

Davis swapped his clippers for Copa’s and set out on what would become an incredible rise from cutting hair to catching the eye at Bodymoor Heath.

Dave Northfield was the man at Biggleswade who kept Davis’ head up. The youngster never actually played for the senior side, but regular games for the youth team against various academies in the area helped to get him noticed again.

Northfield told the DailyStar that despite Davis being released for his size at Stevenage, his best attributes suited a certain position.

“Whilst he was playing at Stevenage, what was obvious was that he was their best finisher but they rarely played him as a centre-forward,” Northfield said.

“They often played him as a left-winger because he was left-footed, which was not where he should be playing. That was obvious from the outset, as soon as we picked him up, we played him at centre-forward.

“When he started playing for us, we had Norwich, Ipswich – he actually played a couple of games for Ipswich – and Fulham all after him. They all questioned me and asked ‘Are you sure he is a centre-forward and not a wide player?’

“I told them he was a striker. He can play both ways. He can play with his back to goal, as he’s doing at Villa which is what they love about him, but he can also play on the shoulder and you can play him in.”

The perfect attitude

Northfield praised Davis’ attitude and application as well as his obvious physical and requisite technical skills.

“Keinan works hard to be the best player he can be. He recognises his opportunity and wants to make the most of it.

“He can also run with the ball well and he’d draw in other players. For us, he would go through the middle and pull it back for midfielders to score.”

It was clear that Davis could play at a higher level after some high-scoring, individually excellent performances. It wasn’t long before Villa came calling.

“Villa came to watch quite a lot,” Northfield remembered.

“They took a long time to make their decision. Other clubs came in late but Villa had done all the work on him.

“He went and trained at Ipswich before training at Villa. They wanted to sign him on a six-week trial. I told them he was going to Villa and we promised him a week there. He did that and he loved it there.”

Manchester United and Arsenal had also sent scouts to watch the striker in action during his break-through Championship campaign with Villa.

“If he keeps his head down and works hard and listens, which I’m confident he is, I think the world’s his oyster.

“If you want to achieve something, you have to work hard. If he does that, it’s achievable for him. If the big boys are looking at him, then he’s doing something right.”

Interest from elsewhere has cooled after an injury-ravaged couple of seasons for Davis since bursting onto the scene against Norwich City in 2017.

A memorable debut

His infectious work rate, partnered with his ability to hold the ball up as well as run the channels made him a valuable member of Steve Bruce’s promotion hopefuls in 2018.

Villa had picked up just a point from their first three games when Davis was thrown into the line-up for Norwich that season. His performance was rewarded with a standing ovation in Villa’s and Steve Bruce’s first victory of the season.

“I didn’t find out I was in the team that day until we got to the stadium,” Davis recalled.

“And it wasn’t even the manager who told me I was in. The squad came upon a monitor in the dressing room and my name was there. I got butterflies to begin with and was a bit nervous. But I soon got over that and felt comfortable.

“I thought back when I was in the U23s that it’d be scary playing in front of the big crowds at Villa Park, but I’ve handled it well. It drives me on. I want to get that first goal there now, preferably in front of the Holte End.”

Unfortunately, Davis couldn’t count on momentum either form throughout the season as Villa fans were itching to see more of the new kid on the block.

Davis didn’t train all week after impressing against Norwich on his debut at 19 years of age because of a hamstring injury – it was a sign of things to come for the forward.

“Because of his upbringing, a non-league background, and facing rejection, he’s determined to make a fist of what’s ahead of him,” Steve Bruce said.

“Certainly, as a young player, I haven’t witnessed a better debut.

“I’ve seen better debuts from international players but I’ve never seen a young player have an impact so quickly. He helped turn the negativity that was in the stadium into a positive which was good.”

Davis may have initially got into the team under Bruce because of injuries to senior players, but he took his deserved chance. Davis spoke fondly about the current Newcastle manager.

“He’s has helped me because I feel like I bring energy to the team and ever since the Norwich game he’s told me just to keep bringing that and keep energising the team.

“I still need to score more goals. If I can add that to my game I’ll be heading towards being the finished article, so I’ll work hard to do that. The manager says I have good attributes and I think that as well. Hopefully, I can continue in an upwards direction.”

Catching the eye of national team coaches topped a rapid rise for Davis who only a few years ago was practising grooming, not goal-scoring.

Davis scored his first international goal with a last-minute winner for England U20s against Poland in March. The Villa forward came on as a substitute, replacing former team-mate Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, and was on hand to steer home the deciding goal in Bielsku-Bialej.

Former coach Northfield hopes the Villa hitman can go on to make an appearance for the seniors in the coming years under Gareth Southgate, who is keen to promote Three Lions youngsters through the ranks.

“I really pray he achieves it. The good thing at the moment is there’s some good youngsters being given the chance for England.

“If he can stay clear of injuries and keep doing what he’s doing, hopefully, he gets a chance.”

The present-day

Fast forward to the present day and Villa’s number 39 has drawn acclaim from every coach, player and scout that’s played a part in his mission to the top following his early career rejection.

Current Aston Villa assistant coach Richard O’Kelly has worked with plenty of young, talented players having closely followed his coaching companion Dean Smith during his career in management.

He too predicts a bright future for Davis.

Is Davis ready to step up and replace Abraham?“Keinan is a player you look at and go ‘wow, he’s got some potential’. Through one reason or another – little niggles here and there – he’s never really had a run of games,” O’Kelly said.

“But what he’s done is come on in games and affected them. Last season in the Championship there were a few near the end where he affected the games when we really needed him to.

“He’s heading the right way. It’s just about getting him out on the training pitch every day and keeping working with him. The good thing about him is that he wants to do well and improve.

“Nothing fazes him. He thinks ‘throw something else at me, I will deal with that.’ He’s a cracking lad.”

John Terry – another assistant to Smith, since he took the reigns at Villa Park – has also lauded Davis. When playing for Villa, Terry was captain and no doubt a role model on and off the pitch, but even the Premier League winner and Chelsea legend struggled against the youngster.

“He’s a nightmare to play against in training, he really is,” revealed Terry in 2018.

“He leads the line superbly well and that’s all we can ask of him.”

Davis himself will be the first to acknowledge his lack of goals in competitive games, but with the little luck he’s had in a Villa shirt, he can be excused for not matching the numbers of Tammy Abraham, Lewis Grabban and others in seasons gone by.

Davis scored two goals in three games in 2017.

“Scoring against Barnsley was my favourite of all,” the forward admitted.

“I’ve watched the first goal loads of times! It was good (scoring at the Villa end) because they all came running down and that was the moment I just felt properly part of the team.

“Then the one against Burton Albion just a few days after felt very good, too.

“Finally, getting the Man of the Match award against Preston. That was a good moment for me.

“It’s a huge jump (to the Championship) and you’ve just got to be switched on all the time. When I was coming off the bench at the start of the season it would sometimes be too fast for me and I wasn’t expecting it.

“It’s a massive learning curve because I used to struggle mentally and I couldn’t handle it. But as time goes on you get used to it and you can give back as much as they give you.”

Thierry Henry & Ashley Young

Davis’ game has rapidly developed since hugging the wing at Stevenage, he’s taken a leaf out of many an icon’s book to become the player he is today.

“Thierry Henry was my idol when I was growing up watching Arsenal.

“Ashley Young also, because he’s from Stevenage like me.

“The biggest name to get in touch was probably Joe Cole, who gave me a ring and offered me some advice.

“He knows my agent and we got in contact. He gave me some helpful guidance, which was great because he’s achieved a lot.

“Obviously he was here as well and has gone on to have many good years at Manchester United. I admire him and he is still playing at the top.”

Davis has been made to work for his future and earning a contract extension at Villa goes some way in proving it. From Biggleswade to Bodymoor, the young striker has remained humble throughout his journey.

“I get noticed out and about a lot more now,” Davis said in 2018.

“If I’m in the Bullring or similar places, I get recognised. I definitely noticed a change in the amount of people that came up to me after that Norwich match.”

Former coach Northfield remembers the quiet, grounded kid whose humility put a smile on his face, even if Davis was looking to cause damage on the pitch.

“He’s a quiet lad, as it’s well reported, I’ve said this to him, he just needs to smile,” Northfield said.

“It’s not down to me, but we put him in a friendly environment, where he enjoyed it and there wasn’t the pressure.

“He rarely got a shouting at because that wasn’t what we were looking to do.

“When I speak to him now, I tell him, if you’ve got a smile on your face, people are in trouble. If he’s confident, then he will be at the top of his game.”

Brilliant character

Another source told The Athletic: “You don’t get any trouble with Keinan. He’s a modest, humble lad but when he’s on the pitch, he’s a nightmare to play against.”

Northfield also described Davis as “one of the nicest” players he’s ever worked with, mixed with a composed character one bound to take him far in the game.

Keinan Davis“Keinan is always in control of his emotions but there was one time when he lost it,” he said. “A player spat in his face during a game against Newmarket. He was raging and had to be held back.

“We were 4-3 down but Keinan scored a last-minute header to equalise and make it 4-4.

“We played the same team five weeks later and battered them thanks to two early goals from Keinan. That’s what he was good at, putting people in their place. He was unplayable that day, just like he was for Villa against Norwich on his debut.

“It’s that drive and determination that will help in the future.”

Before Villa claimed Premier League promotion last year, Davis might have been thinking of life away from Villa considering a potential lack of playing time.

QPR, Hull City and Preston North End among a number of Championship suitors were looking to prize Davis away from Villa Park following promotion.

Interest came from abroad too, in Germany, France and Scotland, but head coach Smith told the 21-year-he still had a role to play in Villa’s survival bid.

Earlier in the season, Davis said: “The manager gave me massive confidence by saying that he wants me to stay. I know that Wesley is the main striker but I just want to continue chasing him down.”

We all love a romantic nothing to something story, especially in the cut-throat industry that is football, but with hard work and determination to reach the top, Keinan deserves all the praise and acclaim that comes his way.

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