Swansea City's Ben Davies getting used to loftier surroundings
FOR a team who conquered Arsenal at the Emirates just a week ago, Norwich may not present the most glamorous opposition for Swansea City today.
But for Ben Davies, a Premier League fixture of any sort is a far cry from the sparsely populated footballing outposts he visited as a boy.
A lifelong Swansea fan, Davies's childhood was littered with long journeys to watch his home club play at stadiums such as Moss Rose and Brisbane Road.
This was not the most exotic of introductions to the sport, but Davies was hooked.
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Watching the Swans slogging their way past Southend and Scunthorpe inspired him to become a professional footballer, though he has fulfilled his ambitions in a different sporting universe.
"I remember going to Leyton Orient, Brentford — all the clubs where the Swans are a million miles from now," Davies says.
"I remember being at the final game at The Vetch against Shrewsbury and going to places like Port Vale. I'll always remember those days.
"I had good times going to those games, and now the away fans travelling to the Emirates and Old Trafford is a different world."
Davies has featured in all but one of Swansea's 15 Premier League matches this season, adapting remarkably well to the top flight having been thrust into the side after Neil Taylor broke his ankle in September.
Having dreamed of playing for the Swans at any level, no matter how low, the 19-year-old has already taken to the field against the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal.
"My aim was always to play for the first team here, whether that was in League Two or the Premier League," he says.
"It would have been a dream come true if my debut had come against Macclesfield as opposed to West Ham.
"It kind of happened at a good time that I got my opportunity, when the club was at the highest level it could be."
What is more startling than the scale of Davies's rise is the hurtling pace at which he has established himself as a first-team regular for Swansea.
When Norwich last visited the Liberty earlier this year, Davies would have watched the game from the stands with his fellow youth team players. Not anymore.
"It's all changed in a matter of months, and I'm starting to get used to it," Davies says, smiling as he tries to comprehend his new status.
"Last year I would've been playing in the reserve team, hoping to get a few senior games under my belt and maybe pushing for the first-team squad. Realistically, it was just playing for the reserves and hoping to impress the reserve team manager.
"We would just be watching the games in the stands. I was still a fan even when I was a part of the squad, wanting the club to do as well as they could."
Davies did not have any time to mull over his promotion to the first team, with Taylor's broken ankle leaving the teenager as the Swans' only fit left-back.
"It was disappointing to see Neil get injured — he's a good lad and it was horrible to see him get that injury," he adds.
"But I didn't have time to worry about that. I was just thrust in and had to get my head on the game.
"There was no real anticipation of what was coming — I just had to get on the field and do my best, and Michael Laudrup has put his faith in me to keep me in the team."
Davies may still be a Swans supporter at heart, though he has seldom looked overawed by his newfound standing as a team-mate to the players he once idolised. The teenager plays with composure and poise, an astute defender whose passing and crossing make him an increasingly effective outlet in attack.
He improves with every game and, as he does so, one can sense that confidence is coursing through his veins.
Davies's displays certainly caught the eye of Wales manager Chris Coleman, who gave the left-back his full international debut against Scotland in October — after just four Premier League starts.
As he has done with Swansea, Davies took to national service with aplomb and was rewarded with a second full 90 minutes in another World Cup qualifier against Croatia.
But it could have been very different. A talented all-round athlete, Davies might have been at the Millennium Stadium instead of the Emirates last weekend, playing with an oval ball rather than a round one.
At Ysgol Ystalyfera, his secondary school, he played rugby alongside Ospreys youngsters Jack Jones, Daniel Suter and Ryan Evans.
They reached the Welsh Cup final and, as the team's fly-half, it seemed Davies had a bright rugby playing future ahead of him.
"My old school was a proper rugby school," he says. "I always used to enjoy playing rugby — I used to enjoy playing any sport to be honest.
"It was always rugby when I was growing up. My dad's a big rugby fan but he's kind of converted to football now.
"I had to decide when I was about 16 what I really wanted to do, and that was always football.
"All through my school days, I enjoyed playing rugby as much as I did football. Had the football not worked out, I'd have given rugby a decent go.
"But when it came to making a decision, it was always going to be football. There was no doubt about that. It's paid off."