'What he’s done in the game is superb' - Leeds United midfielder the right man for a big national team job
When Steven Davis eventually calls it a day Northern Ireland will needs a new captain and Graham Smyth says Leeds United can provide the right man for the job.
Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas wasn’t just a natural choice to captain Northern Ireland in their summer friendlies, he’s the natural choice to succeed Steven Davis in the long term.
The Whites midfielder was given the armband for games against Malta and Ukraine by boss Ian Baraclough during the national team’s mini tour, in Davis’ absence.
Although the Rangers league title winner has shown no signs of contemplating calling time on his career and Baraclough has jokingly asked the media to stop retiring his captain, Davis turned 36 in January and both men know that he can’t go on forever.
His longevity has allowed him to play 662 senior games at club level, 306 of them in the Premier League and a further 216 in the Scottish top flight.
At international level, his playing record isn’t just remarkable, it’s unsurpassed.
He made his debut for Northern Ireland in February 2005, in a team that featured former Leeds striker David Healy, and took on the captaincy seven years later.
Since then he has led his country on a record 70 occasions and, in April of this year, he made history as he became the most capped British male footballer of all time, earning his 126th cap in Northern Ireland’s draw with Bulgaria to break Peter Shilton’s record.
Calling Davis, a player Dallas once said was good enough for any team in the Premier League, a 'tough act to follow' is putting it mildly.
And yet Dallas, still only 30, offers as smooth and natural a succession as Northern Ireland could hope for, when the time comes.
He was part of the team that made it to Euro 2016, he has already had a taste of leading the team, having become the country’s 95th captain last November in a Nations League defeat to Austria, and he can now boast not only a season of Premier League experience but a season of Premier League excellence.
Dallas played all but nine minutes of Leeds’ 38 top-flight fixtures which, after a short pre-season, was a big ask for any player, never mind a player tasked by Marcelo Bielsa with either charging up and down the left flank as a full-back or covering most of the pitch as a central midfielder in the team that ran farthest and fastest in the Premier League.
And at the end of all that, Dallas really showed his leadership, by turning up for Northern Ireland to play two friendly games, almost in their entirety, to win caps number 55 and 56.
Baraclough was without a number of his senior players for various reasons, including Davis and vice-captain Jonny Evans, so the presence of a few older heads amongst a group that included youngsters like Leeds’ Alfie McCalmont, St Johnstone’s Ali McCann, Manchester United’s Ethan Galbraith, Liverpool’s Conor Bradley and Chelsea’s Sam McClelland, was of real significance.
Just by showing up, Dallas and the other experienced men in the Northern Ireland squad set the tone and the culture for the greener members of the tour party.
Caps are to be cherished, regardless of the circumstances they come in or the opposition. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Dallas views things that way, having watched 27 games and almost four years go by between his first and second caps.
Debutant Bradley said it all about the way Dallas is viewed by the young players taking their first steps in international football after coming on to replace the Cookstown man in the 3-0 win over Malta.
“Obviously he’s an unbelievable player and what he’s done in the game is superb,” said the 17-year-old Anfield prospect.
“It made it a bit nicer to come on for him, the captain, to get my debut.”
Leeds’ Mr Versatile has the respect of the manager too. Baraclough, who was present at the Etihad to watch Dallas score twice in a 2-1 win over Manchester City, was happy with his choice of captain for the tour.
“He epitomises everything I want from a captain,” he said.
“He’s a senior player, he’s a leader on the pitch in the way he conducts himself, his effort and endeavour, he’s a shining light for everyone. Stuart’s a good choice. This week was all about effort and commitment, for players to come on tour at the end of a long season, and I can’t say enough about the senior players on the trip who have driven that.”
Davis, when he eventually goes, will leave huge shoes to fill in not only the Northern Ireland midfield but in Baraclough’s leadership group.
It will be a huge job. In Dallas, Northern Ireland have a man Davis refers to as a ‘machine’, a man Bielsa calls a ‘tireless worker and example to all’ and the right man for the job.