From the Cardiff City Stadium to football royalty in Belgium
Luke James, Kortrijk, Belgium
When the two teenage supporters waiting outside Kortrijk’s Guldensporenstadion learned that I was from Wales, they knew immediately why I was asking directions to the club’s reception on a cold Wednesday morning.
“Ah, Isaak Davies – the King of Kortrijk,” they shot back. “Great player, very fast,” said Benoit. “The defenders can’t follow him.”
“His first match was so good everyone thinks finally we have a good striker,” agreed Gillian, who added proudly that he was the owner of one of the Welshman’s match worn shirts.
Davies had won round supporters of ‘De Kerels’ within 17 minutes of his first start of the season-long loan from Cardiff City, a home match against Standard Liege.
Picking up the ball 35 yards out, he didn’t hesitate in driving towards goal before wrongfooting a defender and the goalkeeper by shaping to curl the ball towards the far post before placing inside the near post.
It was the same combination of direct running and quick footwork that saw Davies’ break into the Bluebirds’ first team before the injury setback last season which has led to this loan spell in Belgium.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute so far, even the bad times” smiled Davies when asked about his coronation by Kortrijk fans in the portakabin which acts as the club’s media centre.
“I felt confident coming to this club. From the first day I felt like I was training well and everything just fell into place.
“Obviously you’re waiting for the first goal and obviously it didn’t take too long so I was happy with that.”
Davies’ goal against Standard Liege brought back good memories for Cardiff fans of a certain age, with City’s last goal in European competition coming against the same opponents in 1993.
The link between Cardiff and Kortrijk, which was also owned by the Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan until last summer, made the Flemish club an obvious choice of loan destination.
“Before I came they said obviously the manager would watch the games and, because of the link between Kortrijk and Cardiff, it would be easier to follow my progress,” said Davies.
The 22-year-old also did his own due diligence on the Belgian Pro-League by making contact with Rabbi Matondo, the Cardiffian attacker who impressed with 10 goals for Cercle Bruges in the 2021/22 season.
“I text him when it came about and he just said good stuff about the league,” said Davies. “He said positive things and told me that, for a player like me who likes to run in behind, it would be perfect because they play with high lines.”
“There’s loads of eyes on the Belgian league,” he added, “and I feel like it’s a good platform for me as a young player to show what I can do at a top level.”
The move has also helped Davies develop away from the pitch.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a lot,” he said. “I lived at home all my life until I’ve come on loan to a different country so it was quite tough to start off with. But I feel like I’m getting used to it now.”
The arrival of another Cardiff loanee, Sheyi Ojo, has helped Davies settle in, while fellow Bluebirds academy graduate, Joel Bagan, is playing just down the road at Kortrijk’s arch rivals, Zulte Waregem.
— KV Kortrijk (@kvkofficieel) October 22, 2023
Brexit complicated personal matters. His girlfriend was initially living with Davies in a flat in the centre of Kortrijk, a wealthy town where fashionable boutiques and cafes sit beside medieval buildings, but has had to return to Wales until a visa can be organised.
That hasn’t proved to be a distraction on the pitch.
Matondo’s advice backfired for his former team as Davies scored his second of the season against Cercle Bruges. A relatively simple front post finish was the result of an intelligent run which helped him meet a low cross unmarked.
Three weeks later, he handed Kortrijk a famous victory against Belgian giants Club Bruges by outpacing two defenders to latch on to a through ball and beat Simon Mignolet with his left foot.
“I try not to think about the goals too much,” said Davies. “I know people like to look at stats but I think what you do on the pitch is more important to the team.”
It’s the kind of team-first attitude that a player might be taught to express in media training. In Davies’ case, his performances prove it’s genuine.
“He’s made a good impression here,” said Imar Vandenabeele, who covers Kortrijk for the Flemish tabloid Het Laatste Nieuws.
“It’s his effort and he has a good mentality also, the supporters like that. He runs a lot and does a lot of defensive work and that’s something the supporters like.”
Davies’ fighting spirit is a perfect fit for Kortrijk. The city is famous for being the site of the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, which saw a local peasant militia defeat the King of France’s heavy cavalry.
Kortrijk’s stadium is named after the battle and the club are going to have to pull off a few more historic upsets to escape relegation.
They haven’t won a league game since Davies’ goal against Club Bruges in October and haven’t scored in their last three league matches.
Their last goal was, of course, scored by Davies. This time a cleverly-placed looping header to equalise against relegation rivals Westerlo. Kortrijk though couldn’t hang on to the point.
Although Davies is modest about his goals tally (“I’m not too bothered about being top scorer. I’ve only scored three [now four]”), it is a real achievement in a team bottom of the league by five points.
The only other player to score in December was the team’s goalkeeper, whose header from a 93rd minute corner at second-from-bottom Eupen won them their last point.
After being brought over by Edward Still, the Anglo-Belgian brother of Reims coach and internet meme Will Still, the results mean Davies is now working under his third permanent manager of this season.
“It is tough, especially being on loan as well because the manager has signed me and then we didn’t have a great start to the season so there’s been a change.”
“Hopefully we can finish above the relegation zone but I feel like we just need to stick together and take each game as it comes.”
A relegation dogfight under multiple managers might not be the ideal conditions for a young loanee but it is familiar terrain for Davies.
“It is tougher but so far in my career it’s always been like that,” said Davies. “I don’t really know what it’s like to be up the top of the league.
“I just look at the positives in everything. I’ll have all this experience when I’m 26, 27 and I think it will help me for times like that in the future.”
Since he broke into Cardiff’s first team in 2021, four different managers have steered the Bluebirds to 18th and 21st place finishes.
Davies found Mark Hudson, who survived only 18 matches, “really supportive” of him and other young players.
The academy graduate had a more difficult time under Steve Morison, who was criticised for taking Davies off only 30 minutes after having brought him on as a second half substitute.
“That’s obviously his way of going about things but I didn’t take it to heart,” said Davies.
“I felt like I didn’t deserve to be taken off because we were down to 10 men and it was a difficult situation. But I just took it on the chin, learned from it and the next game I scored my first goal.”
Davies was called the “future of the club” by previous Cardiff manager Sabri Lamouchi, but it is not clear whether his form for Kortrijk will be enough to force him into the plans of current boss Erol Bulit.
His performances in Belgium have certainly kept him in the minds of Bluebirds supporters, who have shared widely the clips of his goals for Kortrijk on social media.
The increasing game time being given to Rubin Colwill, with whom Davies came through the City academy, might also give him hope that Bulut is willing to give opportunities to other young players.
But Davies shows wisdom beyond his years when asked about whether he sees his future at the club he joined aged just 8.
“For every footballer you don’t know what’s round the corner,” he said. “I just need to focus on my time here, help the team and then see where I am in January or at the end of the season.”
“I want to make sure I’m a key player somewhere, I’m not sure where that will be.
“Whether it’s Cardiff or somewhere else. I just want to play to the best of my ability as high up as possible.”
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