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Stewart Downing: Is it time we all moved on?

With Stewart Downing seemingly heading for the exit door, is it fair to suggest he’s being harshly treated, or is it time we say ‘thanks for the memories’ and move him on? He divides opinion that’s for sure.

According to some, being a local lad playing for your hometown club puts you at a disadvantage. Odd really considering the feeling of seeing such a player pull his clubs shirt on ought to fill you with a sense of pride, not a sense of hostility.

But believe it or not there does appear to be a lot of calls for him to leave, with a portion of fans actually celebrating the fact he could be on his way amid reported Birmingham interest. To an outsider it would appear bizarre. After all, this is a local lad who made the breakthrough at an early age, played his part in some huge moments in Middlesbrough’s history, as well made the club a lot of money when he left after Boro’s relegation from the Premier League in 2009. So what’s the problem then?

Is it arrogance?

Is it his reported dressing room outbursts, the type of which has seen him clash with Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and later Aitor Karanka at Boro? The famous ‘lost weekend’ that featured the depressing 2-0 defeat at Charlton saw Karanka absent after a dressing room bust up led to a temporary walk out, Downing often labelled as the ringleader of that event. Nobody has ever spoken publicly in candid detail about that incident, but it’s widely accepted the 32yr old played a part. Karanka had, and still has a lot of support out there from Boro fans, so could that have been a factor in his downturn in popularity?

Poorly suited to rough and tumble of the Championship?

His return in 2015 was hardly met with much fanfare by supporters, no matter how hard the club tried to talk up his arrival from West Ham. Murmurings of him being a Steve Gibson purchase did the rounds, and whilst you can’t deny the Chairman is a big admirer, it’s hard to believe he would’ve forced a player on his manager. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with his homecoming, but that was more down to the financial aspect of it and the risk of FFP issues should we have failed to gain promotion that season.

Of course I had my own opinions on his attitude, but those alone wouldn’t have put me off. He’s a good player, and was potentially excellent for a club in the Championship. Had it not been for the large fee and no doubt crazy wages I might’ve been a little more enthused, however his age didn’t help either. Would he have enough for the rough and tumble of the second tier, where time on the ball is at a premium? The luxury of space would not be afforded to him like it had been in the Premier League.

He had just come off the back of a fantastic season at Upton Park, where under Sam Allardyce he’d been converted into a ‘No.10’, picking up space in the dangerous areas and feeding the front men. He’d reinvented himself, no longer a winger he was now a playmaker, and one of the top performers in the league. His eight assists and 77 chances created saw him up among the top 4/5 midfielders in the division when it came to creativity. This was a player at the top of his game, and somehow he was convinced to drop down a level, despite Slaven Bilic wanting to hang on to him after he’d replaced Big Sam.

He came home, persuaded by the prospect of helping his hometown club to promotion after six years out of the top flight. All very admirable, and yes despite my reservations on the financial package, I was heartened to see him return, especially given his options and that he would’ve been an asset to the Hammers. They’d also just moved into the Olympic Stadium too, so he was sacrificing a fair bit to come back.

It’s fair to say though, that despite his obvious qualities, he didn’t quite make the impression expected of him. He had flashes, of which included his brilliant curling finish at home to MK Dons, as well as the decisive goal in the 1-0 home win against Rotherham. The delightful free-kick that helped seal a 3-1 away win at Wolves also sticks in the memory, but other than his impact was limited. He’d gone from being a top performing Premier League midfielder to a little above average Championship performer. The end of season stats see him nowhere near the league’s best in terms of assists or chances created, two of the things he’d been excelling at the year previously.

Did Downing’s frustration contribute to bust up?

However, a lack of opportunities in his now favoured playmaker role could well have played its part in that.
He was deployed as a wide man more often than not, much to his frustration it appeared. He publicly admitted that he’d been brought in with one idea in mind only to find himself performing a role he was no longer at his best at. The days of Downing bombing down the wing were long gone, his impact limited as the pace of years gone by had long since deserted him. Now I’m not one for feeling sorry for players in instances such as this, but it was easy to understand his frustration that’s for sure – frustration that possibly contributed to the dressing room bust-up in March of that season.

Once the talk of that came seeping out the corridors of Rockliffe it didn’t take long before Downing’s name was brought into the equation. Staunch defenders of Karanka were outraged at such apparent lack of respect shown to the manager, and soon a split was formed between those in the Karanka in/out camps. Downing had almost become the scapegoat, along with Jonathan Woodgate who had also reportedly played a part in proceedings too. Another local lad getting his share of stick, and the fact that Woodgate and Downing were related by Woodgate’s marriage to Downing’s sister only served to fuel the agenda that the pair were in cahoots and looking to undermine the manager.
Surely their close relationship and the fact they were senior pro’s in the dressing room made them prime suspects for the instigation of some sort of revolt. Or so that was the theory anyway.

Karanka returned from his briefest of hiatus’ to lead Middlesbrough back to the big time. Downing celebrated like the rest, and whilst he hadn’t been hugely influential, he’d made a respectable, if modest contribution to the clubs promotion.

Familiar feelings arise

With a return to the Premier League the talk was that Downing might be able to reignite his form from two seasons earlier, however he found himself battling with Gaston Ramirez for the No.10 role. A tough battle considering Ramirez’s heavy influence at the back end of the 2015/16 season, and in reality there was only really one winner.

Downing was forced out wide again, and the end result was one of frustrating familiarity. Discontent steadily grew among sections of the support as they questioned his inclusion, especially given his lack of impact on games. The stats appeared to back this up also as over the season, apart from managing just the one goal; he only managed to make three assists. Not really the sort of form you would be looking for from a player who represented one of the few who had genuine Premier League experience.

He was told in January he could go, on loan it was thought. There was a feeling that he was definitely off, but he managed to see out the Transfer Window without making a move. He hardly featured during that time though, his future up in the air, and there only appeared to be one outcome. Yet, a little over a month later he found himself back in the fold.

Karanka departed, and as a parting shot in his final press conference he managed to infer that Downing was not a “fighter” after it was queried why he was not getting his chance. It was a disappointing end to what had been a stormy relationship between the two warring figures. Downing was said to be unhappy with the accusation as you’d expect, apparently claiming there were others going unpunished too, feeling he was being singled out.

What now for Downing’s future?

Despite making a swift return to the fold under Caretaker Boss Steve Agnew, he couldn’t help save Boro as they were relegated after just one season in the top flight.

So then what was to happen? Would he want to stay or would he feel he’d still be able to do a job in the top flight? Well whatever he decided, as soon as Garry Monk came in he may have had to revisit his plans.

It appeared that one of the first things Monk did after becoming Middlesbrough manager was to inform Downing he was no longer required. And whilst he may find himself on the clubs tour of Portugal, that doesn’t mean a thing considering fellow departure candidates Ben Gibson, Marten De Roon and Gaston Ramirez are also there too.

Does Monk see Downing as a potential trouble causer? Dressing room harmony is of vital importance, so perhaps Monk has taken the cautious approach and decided to rid himself of any potential problems.

Looking back over Downing’s two seasons since he came back, it’s clear to see that the move hasn’t quite worked out. He’s not has the desired impact, failing to live up the transfer fee laid out. But can all the blame be placed firmly at his feet, or has he been, in part, the victim of tactics and personality clashes?

Until his fate his decided one way or the other his presence at the club is sure to continue splitting opinion amongst fans. Could their be another chance for Downing, or is it time for him and the club to move on and head their separate ways?

About Ian Smith

I’m a thirty-something football fanatic, lover of all things Middlesbrough. Been a fan of The Boro since the ceremonial presenting of a shirt to me by my Dad when I was too young to protest.

I’m a keen writer, and my articles will generally be Boro focused. However, depending on the story, I’m happy to write on a wide variety of football issues.

You can find me on Twitter @Smithy_MFC84

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