From goalkeeping stalwart to First Team Assistant Coach, Kelvin Davis remembers the night he excelled between the posts at Leeds, on the eve of Southampton's return to Elland Road.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect game, but that was probably as close as they’ve come for me,” Kelvin Davis reflects.
Until James Ward-Prowse matched the milestone last month, Saints’ former goalkeeper turned First Team Assistant Coach was still the last man to reach 300 Southampton appearances.
For all his achievements, including back-to-back promotions, winning at Wembley, Southampton Player of the Year, countless clean sheets, improbable saves and thwarted penalties – with Premier League Hall of Famers Robin van Persie and David Silva among his victims from the spot – it is one night in West Yorkshire, in early 2012, that Davis is reminded of more than any other.
Promoted from League One the previous season, Saints were surprise leaders of the Championship at the turn of the year, and were back on top by the time they travelled to Elland Road in the first weekend of March.
Nigel Adkins’s men had a one-point lead over West Ham, who had a game in hand, with Reading a point further back and on a run of six straight wins. Three into two wouldn’t go.
A downturn in form would see Saints slip into the play-offs, having not left the automatic promotion places all season.
There was little margin for error against a Leeds side now managed by Neil Warnock, who was preparing for his first game in charge at a raucous Elland Road.
The 3-1 home victory at Leeds’ expense on the opening day of the season suddenly seemed a distant memory, as the pressure mounted on a previously free-spirited Saints side.
“Warnock is very used to going into clubs in that environment and getting the best out of them, and I remember it being quite a lively evening,” Davis sets the scene.
“Leeds United is always going to be a big club and a big test to anyone going to Elland Road. You’re always going to get a passionate atmosphere.
“The fans were right behind them. It was one of those nights when you knew you were going to have to be on your game.”
With the Sky Sports cameras also in attendance, it was a Saturday evening kick-off under the lights.
“It was a strange kick-off time – 5.30, I think,” Davis continues. “Anyone in football, player-wise or in my case now, coaching-wise, will tell you it’s such an odd time to play a game.
“For a three o’clock kick-off we’d always travel up the night before, but the decision was made that we would fly up on the morning of the game, so it had a bit of a different feel to it in terms of preparation.
“I remember we got to the hotel, had a quick bite to eat and then had an hour and a half in our rooms, whereas normally you’d have all afternoon to relax and prepare.
“A few of the lads weren’t feeling one hundred per cent, but I find it quite easy. I can fall asleep on a washing line, so I had a good hour’s kip in the afternoon and I felt quite fresh going into the game.”
Having survived an early penalty appeal against defender José Fonte, Saints took the lead, 16 minutes in.
“I can remember the goal we scored that day,” Davis recalls. Despite not having the best view from the other end of the field, his memory serves him well. “Tadanari Lee headed the ball back for Rickie (Lambert), and Rickie hit a volley as sweet as you can hit a volley, and we were 1-0 up from the early part of the game. Obviously the rest is history.”
Most of the history, from that particular night, belongs to Saints’ last line of defence. It speaks volumes that Lambert’s crisp finish is buried under a raft of Davis saves in the minds of those who witnessed it.
“I’ve never seen a goalkeeping performance like that in my life,” the goalscorer later remarked. “That’s the best one, definitely.”
Davis, flying from one post to the other, was a man possessed, whose performance got better the longer the game went on.
Reeling from Lambert’s opener, Leeds responded when top scorer Ross McCormack fizzed a shot wide from the edge of the box.
Then the Scot turned provider for strike partner Luciano Becchio, who improvised to send the ball goalwards with his chest, only for Davis, who could not have been expecting it, to claw the ball away from his goal line with his right hand.
It was a remarkable stop, but the keeper was not about to admire his good work.
“When you make a save in a game, you’re in game mode,” he explains. “When you’re in a winning position, you just want to keep yourself in a winning position.
“Getting to half-time being 1-0 up, we tried to get ourselves better organised for the second half.
“We spoke about being compact and limiting their chances. But in the second half they put even more pressure on us, and I think we got into that defensive mode of trying to hold on, rather than attacking for another goal.”
kelvin davisthere's a scene in the game where i think we ended up with all 11 players inside the six-yard box.
former southampton goalkeeper
For all the saves that followed, it is one early in the second half that still leaves him beaming with pride.
“I can remember coming for a cross and getting in a mix-up with Jos (Hooiveld) at the time.” Davis, like the rest of us, saw Becchio closing in on the dropping ball and feared the worst.
“As the ball fell, I remember the desperation of knowing that, as a goalkeeper, you’ve just got to throw yourself at the ball and get as much as you can behind it. Thankfully, it came off my arm and stayed out of the net.”
Quite how he made up the ground becomes less clear, if anything, the more replays you watch, but the former stopper puts it down to his work away from the public eye.
“As a goalkeeper, with the training you do in the week, you do a lot of those recovery saves, moving back towards your goal and filling the goal up as best you can,” he says.
“I think what sticks in my mind with that is that it’s so related to what you do in training – that transfer from the training pitch to matchday. That gives you the belief that what you’re doing on the training pitch is helping you in games.
“There were a couple of saves that night – the same as being a striker in tune with yourself and scoring goals – when I just felt everything had come together.”
With Leeds’ players still in shock, Saints launched a counter-attack, from which Lambert was denied a second.
It would prove only temporary respite, as Davis soon tipped over a shot from substitute Danny Webber, who must have thought he’d scored two minutes later with a powerful low first-time effort, only to see the ball come bouncing back off the brick wall disguising itself as Southampton’s goalkeeper.
Webber was left frustrated by Davis for a third time when he threw himself in the way of a loose ball in the six-yard box, forcing the striker to rush the chance and poke the ball wide from close range, before Saints survived their biggest scare of all, four minutes from time.
“There’s a scene in the game where I think we ended up with all 11 players inside the six-yard box,” Davis smiles. The footage proves him right.
Leeds hit the bar twice in a melee from a corner, as time stood still, before Hooiveld eventually deflected the ball behind, punching the air as if he’d just scored the winner.
“Ok, I made saves, but everybody ran themselves into the ground, everybody was throwing themselves in the way. I can remember Jos being on the ground and throwing himself to block a shot,” Davis confirms.
Saints, somehow, had survived, prompting the whole team to run to embrace the man of the match at full time.
“That moment where we were all in the same part of the pitch when the referee blew the final whistle was a fantastic feeling – almost like one of those ‘meant to be’ moments. Everyone left everything on the pitch that night,” he adds, still keen to share the praise.
“I think if they’d scored one, they’d have probably gone on and won the game. It was a massive defensive display from the team.
“Our team spirit that season, the season after that and the season before that... that group of players in the dressing room had a real sense of togetherness. The chemistry in the squad was as good as I’ve ever experienced.
“It was me that night, in terms of taking some accolades, but it was certainly the togetherness of the team and the squad that got us over the line in the end.”
Warnock, meanwhile, could hardly believe his eyes. “Their goalkeeper could’ve won four man of the match awards today,” he grinned, ruefully.
With a dozen games still to be played that season, Saints won seven and kept five clean sheets to ensure they never did leave the top two, while Davis’s contributions on and off the pitch have helped maintain Saints’ top-flight status ever since.
This week he returns to Elland Road for the first league meeting between the clubs since that day, with the nine-year anniversary of his defiant display fast approaching.
“You don’t have many of those performances in your career,” he reflects. “I could probably count on one hand how many times I’ve made saves and we’ve won the game 1-0 in the manner in which we did, so it is a special moment.
“I’m sure any goalkeeper you speak to that’s played football at any level, they’ll talk about a game or a couple of games that really stick in their head. That’s certainly one of four or five games that will always stay with me.
“There’s a feeling that comes from within when you’re at the top of your game, you feel in peak condition and you feel completely prepared. You just see everything in the milliseconds – almost like everything’s in slow motion. You get games like that.
“You also get games when you have to work really hard to try and find that focus and mentality. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a perfect game.”
Maybe not. But even Davis knows he was pretty close to perfect on the night that the stars aligned for Saints at Elland Road.