Friday, 15 March 2013

Stewart Downing: An Appreciation

We found Juninho... but we created Stewinho. From Pride Of Pallister Park to England regular to a possible Anfield hero, Si's Insights charts the journey of a truly home-grown Boro star

I remember when I first took note of Stewart Jason Downing. As our best attacking option on the bench during a 4-0 home defeat to Arsenal in August 2003, he was laughed at by pundits. Never mind that our team was decimated by a series of unfortunate injuries and suspensions that day. But I had a feeling that he would come good. And it happened a lot earlier and more easily than I had expected.

Steve McClaren likes to take credit for a lot of the good things that happened at Boro during the noughties, yet his achievements will forever be tarnished by his falseness - and his mistakes. It's hard to give too much credit to a man who loaned Stewie to Sunderland very early on, and only recalled him following injuries to key players. But back to Downing. While a handful of promising crosses towards the end of our one and only cup winning season led me to believe that we had a real gem on our hands, his real breakthrough didn't come until the very beginning of 2004-05, when he came on as a sub and scored the first equalising goal - and his first league goal - in a 2-2 draw with Newcastle. Before long, the left side of the Boro midfield was his, and when playmaker Gaizka Mendieta got injured, it was left for him to take centre stage. The pundits salivated.

As a youngster, Stewie played without fear, expressing himself freely. Among his best remembered early moments are a great finish from a James Morrison cross that nearly resulted in a win at Old Trafford, a fine mazy dribble and equally fine goal against Portsmouth, and a late, late point-saving show against Southampton that allegedly left Arsene Wenger wanting to bid £10 million! And even as the injuries piled up and the early promise of that season typically faded, there was still time for Stewie to crack home a spectacular free kick against West Bromwich Albion.

Alas, injury limited his appearances in 2005-06. I like to think that it was no coincidence that our post-February recovery that season began with his return to form. He was a key component in the Road To Eindhoven - who can forget his three goal-creating crosses in that game against Steaua? - even though I never overlooked the fact that while he was a hero to Boro fans, in the greater scheme of things he was a good player, not a great one. His claims of international class were made a mockery of by Dani Alves, who made Downing look terribly ordinary in the UEFA Cup Final.

Throughout Southgate's first two seasons as Boro boss, Stewie maintained his reputation as a dependable source of Boro goals. In goalscoring terms, his zenith came when Viduka and Yakubu departed and he was forced to carry the burden of Boro's attacking responsibility. That he did impressively, scoring nine league goals in 2007-08 - ten in all competitions. And some of them were real crackers too.

It couldn't last. And it didn't. Was he frustrated that the team were over-reliant on him? Was it the fact that he was no longer an unknown quantity? Or was it a crisis of confidence, brought about by an ever weakening squad? For whatever reason, he underachieved dramatically in 2008-09, missing crucial penalties and very rarely looking like his usual inspirational self. The final straw came when he was stretchered off against Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa in a game we had to win and didn't. It was no way for such an iconic Boro player to bow out.

At that stage, mind, I feared his best days were behind him. And we needed the money. So I admit to being relatively happy when O'Neill's £12 million bid came in and was accepted. It was not the bitter departure that many Boro fans thought would happen; more of a resigned one, a feeling that if Downing really was to up his game, he would have to move away from his now-relegated home town club.

And so he did. After a decent first season at Villa Park, he survived O'Neill's "summer of tough love" in 2010 - the one where O'Neill was denied the funds he felt he had the right to spend following the sale of James Milner - to eventually establish himself as an important player in the Villa midfield along with Ashley Young. So important, in fact, that once 2010-11 was over, both Young and Stewie were off to Man. United and Liverpool respectively for their first major tests.

A very difficult first season at Anfield - 36 games, no goals and no assists - earned him ire from Liverpool fans. (Just look at the picture in this link.) And an equally difficult start to 2012-13, probably due to Brendan Rodgers' "settling in" period, soon led to speculation that Downing would return to the Riverside. But since the turn of the new year, Stewie has looked a different player; Steven Gerrard has recently praised him for his workrate and consistency, in addition to the goals and assists we know Stewie so well for.

Even if Boro seem destined never to fulfil their alleged "potential", perhaps Stewart Downing may, at last, fulfil his. And become one of the finest products of Dave Parnaby's academy, if not the finest.


Shaun Lockey said...

Great read. Downing is and always will be the best from academy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shaun:

I like to think various graduates of the academy all succeeded in different ways. You could argue that Brunt was the best creative midfielder, Morrison the best right-sided midfielder, Graham the best striker, Wheater the best centre back, Parnaby the best full-back... the list is endless.

Though oddly enough, we seemed to produce no end of "quality" left wingers at one point - think Downing, Johnson and Porritt, though future evidence illustrated Porritt was never as good as Chelsea apparently thought.