Ben Davis – Fulham
Name: Ben Davis
What links the first ever Premier League scholar from Singapore, and the first Thai player to make a professional appearance in England? It’s a pretty niche quiz question, with a fairly straightforward answer. They’re the same person – nineteen-year old Fulham midfielder, Ben Davis.
With around half the world’s population currently in some form of COVID19 related lockdown, Ben is back home with his family in Thailand, and made the time to have a Zoom call with me, so we could talk through his fairly unique career so far. The young man from Phuket has had quite an unorthodox footballing journey already – moving on his own to a different continent, living with the threat of a prison sentence in his home country, and U23 international honours whilst still a teenager.
Born in Thailand to an English father and a Thai mother, at the age of five Davis experienced his first international move, when his father, Harvey Davis, took up a new role in Singapore. Previously the Senior Director for International X Games, Harvey’s new role at ESPN took him and his young family to the bustling port city at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It was there that Ben started to get into football aged seven, and joined a youth academy named JSSL Singapore, which his father now runs. Linked to Singaporean Premier League side Tampines Rovers, JSSL also had a loose affiliation to Fulham, which gave Ben his big break almost a decade later.
Watching Davis in the U23s now, he is slight compared to his peers, but makes up for it with a low centre of gravity and excellent close control – something he honed as a youngster in Singapore. “I was always the smallest, in every age group I played, so I had to develop other ways of playing, had to think faster than everyone else.” This development stood Davis in good stead, as he was selected for the Football Association of Singapore’s Centre of Excellence, and began winning international plaudits – representing the U16s three times before his 15th birthday. It was at one of these international tournaments that Fulham first started to take notice, inviting him for a three-week trial. This was the first time Ben would come into conflict with the authorities in Singapore in order to pursue his footballing ambitions, but certainly not the last – “in Singapore they take education very seriously, so it was really difficult for me to get authorization to take three weeks off for my trial. Then, after three weeks, Fulham wanted to extend the trial for another two weeks – the Principal of my school was really against that. I took a risk though, and Fulham liked me, so they arranged for me to move to England after my exams.”
Whilst football in Singapore is very popular, Ben acknowledges that the standard isn’t great – something which would later impact his decision to pursue international football with Thailand. However, Ben was also very conscious that moving to England, and becoming the first ever Singaporean to register for a Premier League academy, would be a huge step up. Whilst exciting, a 9,900km move to Harrow, where Ben lived with his grandmother, represented a massive upheaval as well. Once in Harrow, Davis settled into the routine of leaving school at lunchtime to make training in Motspur Park, often not returning home until almost 11pm – it wasn’t an easy transition straightaway. “It probably took me about two months to settle in properly, and to be honest, when I started I wasn’t playing that well – I was really struggling to pick up the tempo and the physicality. But once I had been there for those first few months, I got used to the routine, and I started to improve quickly, and feel that I was at the same level as the others.” What about settling in with the other players? “Well that was like you’d expect – when you arrive at any new environment people are wondering about you, some might even feel threatened. I just had to focus on me, prove that I was good enough, and after that I was accepted.”
Acceptance isn’t something Ben Davis ever has to worry about from the Thai fans back home, where he is regarded as something of a trailblazer. Whilst Suree Sukha, Kiatprawut Saiwaeo and Teerasil Dangda may have been signed by Man City in the Thaksin Shinawatra era, none were ever really expected to progress to first team football, and all left England without making an appearance. If there were suspicions that they were signed for non-footballing reasons, that certainly isn’t the case with Davis, and Thai fans are rightly proud of his achievements thus far. For a nineteen-year old, does that add an extra element of pressure? “Not really. It’s amazing, the fans back in Thailand really have taken to me, and it’s just like an extra motivation to do well. I love representing Thailand, and I just want to do as well for them as I can.”
Having represented Singapore throughout his childhood, at the age of eighteen Davis officially selected Thailand as the nation he wished to represent moving forward, a decision he insists was made for footballing reasons. “The standard in Singapore and Thailand is very different – Thai football is much more technical, it suits my game”. The switch was soon followed by a call up to the Thai U23 squad, who he represented at the AFC U23 Championships, where Thailand were knocked out by Saudi Arabia in the quarter finals. As the only player on the books in a major league, naturally there is a lot of focus on Davis, but he insists that there is a lot of talent in the squad. One name he mentions is that of seventeen-year old Suphanat Mueanta, who has already been capped three times for the full squad. With 10 goals in 35 games for Buriram United, Mueanta was rumoured to have been invited to a trial with Leicester City in 2019.
The AFC U23 Championship was quite an experience for Ben, and unlike anything he’d experienced before. Davis acknowledges that the intensity of matches doesn’t quite match what he is used to now in the UK – “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that has the same intensity and physicality as what we experience in the UK” – it was a different challenge to have the results of his matches meaning something to the supporters, and seeing their reactions. With the tournament taking place in Thailand, Ben and his teammates were escorted to their matches by police outriders, clearing the traffic and ensuring they made it to their destination safely through the thronging crowds. That too was a new experience, as Thailand’s match against Australia (they lost 2-1) was watched by over 22,000 supporters – the highest attendance in the tournament, something which gave Davis a great sense of pride at representing his country. “To put on a shirt for the country I was born in – the country my mum is from – it was just an incredible feeling. I’m proud to be both Singaporean and Thai, but in terms of my footballing career, I had to choose Thailand.”
At some point we have to address the most controversial area of Davis’s career so far, and that’s the issue of National Service. At the age of 18, all Singaporean citizens, at home or abroad, must serve a period of National Service for two years. The Davis family applied for a deferment, in order for him to pursue his career as a professional footballer, but the application was denied by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), despite being supported by the Singapore Football Association. As spokesman for the family, Harvey Davis acknowledged throughout that his son wished to complete National Service, but argued that a deferment was in-line with those issued to other sportsmen, such as the swimmer Joseph Schooling. It was a horrible position for Davis, who understood that losing two years of footballing development at such a young age could have a huge impact on his future career. Midway through 2019, Davis formally announced his decision to represent Thailand, and stated that he would not return to Singapore – nor could he: “I don’t exactly know how the law works, but what I do know is I can’t go back there, or I’d be put in prison because I didn’t do the National Service. And they’d enforce it – Singapore is a strict country!”
He is, however, keen to return to the UK – whenever he might be able to. With new arrivals into the country having to quarantine at home for fourteen days, no one is quite sure when Ben will be able to return and resume training – but he’s doing his best to make sure he’s ready. “Fulham have given me a schedule to follow, and I’m mixing in some of my own things as well – I’m in a hilly area, so doing a lot of hill sprints. There’s a lot of running, just trying to keep the fitness ready to return to training, but I’m using the free weights too, trying to improve my power.” Having made his first team debut in the EFL Cup last season, and featured for the U23s regularly across the season, including in the EFL Trophy, what are Ben’s ambitions for the season ahead?
“Well hopefully I’ll get called to the Thai first team, and make my debut there, but at Fulham, my first aim is to get called for pre-season with the first team, and then hopefully just make more appearances at that level.” He’s certainly in the right place – Ryan Sessegnon, Steven Sessegnon, Matt O’Riley and Harvey Elliott are just a few who have made strides into the first team in recent years. “Fulham have really given me confidence that there’s a pathway to the first team. Making my debut against Southampton has definitely made me want to experience it more.” Not only does the promotion of youth at Fulham strike a chord with Davis, but the club was hugely supportive of him during his legal issues in Singapore – something he remains grateful for.
At nineteen, and now a regular with the U23s (only four players made more appearances in 2019/20), this is a critical season for Ben Davis in his development as a player. Technically sound, and with a keen footballing brain, Ben’s passing accuracy is regularly 90% or higher, but what improvements does he feel he needs to make to push on? “I’ve realized I have to improve my physical game a lot – I’m working really hard in the gym, trying to develop my power and strength, and hopefully that will show this season. I want to score more goals as well. I’m usually a deep lying midfielder, but I’d like to get forward and contribute more in the box.” It’s a critical season with Thailand as well – the national team are third in a tight World Cup qualifying group, only three points behind Vietnam in first, and Davis will be itching to get a chance to play at that level.
Davis has already made a habit of breaking records – next on the list, become the first Thai player to make a league appearance in England, and if he can make those developments he needs to in his game, 2020/21 could be the year.
All pictures either taken by the author or provided by Ben Davis