Downing's last game?
Boro won for the first time since November 9th against Barrow on Saturday but its still been a grim few days for Gareth Southgate. The 2-1 win over the Blue Square Premier side was not always convincing but any joy at progress to the 4th round of the FA Cup was tempered when Stewart Downing handed in a transfer request.
Firstly, the on-field action. There were some postives to be taken - Afonso Alves getting two much-needed goals, Josh Walker's tidy full debut in midfield and a bright showing from Downing, whose invention in a central position was marred by some terrible finishing.
Nagging concerns remain though - Downing was far from the only guilty party in front of goal. Barrow should have been out of sight by the time Jason Walker pulled one back for the non-league side. Boro's defending of set pieces was ineffective yet again and the creaking defence was grateful when the referee finally signalled the end of seven minutes of injury time. If a side in 20th place in the fifth tier of English football can cause so much discomfort, it does not bode well for the upcoming six-pointers against Sunderland, West Brom and Blackburn.
Any worries about the performance were put into perspective, however, when reports began to circulate on Sunday that Stewart Downing was preparing to hand in a transfer request. The grim news was confirmed this morning, his father and agent citing a lack of investment in the squad as the major motivation. While the timing of the request is remarkably inconsiderate, few fans would dispute that the club has stagnated (at best) since reaching the Uefa Cup final in 2006. This evening Boro have confirmed that Downing's request has been rejected.
Steve Gibson also issued an angry insistence that no players will be sold. There's no doubt the immensely hypocritical conduct of Tottenham has irritated both Gibson and Keith Lamb. Spurs' interest in Downing has been common knowledge for some time, with Lamb publicly condemning the Londoners' tactics as long ago as August 2006.
If their transfer tactics were unscrupulous before, it can be no surprise that matters have got even worse since Harry Redknapp became manager at White Hart Lane. Lamb's words on Sunday were very similar to those said two and a half years ago. Having used the media to unsettle Downing and his other target, Jermain Defoe, Redknapp feigned innocence when again talking about other clubs' contracted players in a press conference today.
Only goal difference separates the two clubs in the table and the club are understandably loath to sell to a relegation rival. Perhaps the biggest question the club should be asking is why Downing now seems so desperate to make a move.
Despite lurching from one crisis to the next for what has felt like years, Spurs retain huge ambition. Deluded, unrealistic ambition, but ambition nonetheless. Downing has recognised his hometown club are sleepwalking to the Championship. Results have fallen away in line with costs. No amount of bravado or angry press statements can disguise that uncomfortable truth.