Last week Stewart Downing left West Ham United and signed for Middlesbrough, his hometown club. It doesn’t seem too long since he left really, only six years. Now aged 30, he’s back home and it’s fair to say that the fans are all very pleased about it, even if some of them are a bit surprised to read he might be set to double his wages.
Five million quid – rising to seven if the Boro get promotion – for an ex-England international who played an impressive 35 times for his country, seems relatively low in the current market and suggests an eagerness to ship him out by West Ham.
He’s a funny one, is Stewart. It’s hard for any Teessider not to feel a lot of affection for him, but even in his peak years at Middlesbrough he would frustrate you. His ability to just disappear from a game was legendary. He’d be influential for 20 minutes and then literally seemed to no longer be on the pitch. When he ran past you, it was as though he made no noise at all, like he had quite possibly ceased to exist.
This, in part, is due to playing out on the left wing where getting isolated and forgotten is all too easy. But there was also a feeling that it sort of suited Stewy that that was the case. He was never a shirker, or lazy, or had a bad attitude. Never. But his influence in games would wane remarkably and then disappear altogether for weeks, before returning in some stellar fashion.
His peak years at the Boro included a League Cup win and a European final. His three assists in one of the most remarkable comebacks ever witnessed in British football against Steaua Bucharest in the UEFA Cup will forever bestow a legendary status upon him in the town, and rightly so. It was his left-footed cross from the left onto the head of Massimo Maccarone to score the winning goal that will forever live on as visual poetry. It was Stewy to a tee. It was exactly what he’d always done and had done so well since he was at the Boro academy. The defender lost possession, Downing collected it, pushed it ahead, sprinted past him and hit it with his left foot first time into the box. It curved away from the goal just enough for the bald Italian to plant his head on it to send it into the net. That cross was what every manager he played for wanted from him; it’s what we’ll want from him again next season. That is what he does.
But in his final relegation season at the club, despite playing every match, he didn’t even score a goal. There weren’t a lot of tears when he left for £10million to Aston Villa; in fact, some of us thought we’d done well to get such money.
In the Midlands he did exactly what he’d done for the Boro – played some really great games where he seemed like the best English wide man in a generation, capable of that sudden turn of pace and delivering a dangerous whipping cross and then just as quickly, he became anonymous and seemed to lose form.
To those of us who had watched him since he was a boy, this was no surprise at all. What was a surprise was that Liverpool were prepared to pay £20million for him. He was never worth that sort of money. It was a ludicrous purchase.
However, by then he was an England regular and for a while was booed by some fans, which seemed very unfair. He benefited from being around at a time when left-footed English wingers were in very short supply, but the move to Liverpool wasn’t a happy one. He eventually fell out with Brendan Rodgers, who essentially accused him of not pulling his weight.
Long-time observers of Stewart were not massively surprised to hear this. We’d all felt this many times during his career. This may be unfair, of course, but it was an impression that he often gave.
So came a move to West Ham United where he had one of his famously largely anonymous seasons in the first year, followed by an excellent one playing more centrally at the tip of a diamond formation.
He’s still only 30 and could have six or seven good years ahead of him. Wherever he’s gone, his stats prove that managers pretty much always pick him. Unless injured, he plays almost every game and that suggests a steady reliability to his game and character that is valued. He seems quiet and unassuming and absolutely no trouble at all.
It’s great to have him back at the Riverside to help the Boro gain promotion. But we all know what will happen. He will be player of the month at some point, he will even be talked of as returning to the international fold, then we’ll forget about him for a bit. He’ll still play, but the focus will shift elsewhere.
Some players leave you with a feeling that they didn’t quite fulfill their potential. That if they’d worked harder and made some better choices they could have achieved much more. You don’t feel that about Stewy. How he is now is how he’s always been and when he turns out for Boro next season, it will quickly feel like he never left at all.
Johnny writes novels here and rock ‘n’ roll blogs here