Thursday, 16 July 2009

Downing exits for Villa Park

Stewart Downing today became the first of Boro's major players to depart this summer after agreeing to join Aston Villa in a £12million deal. Downing has signed a four year deal at Villa Park although he is not expected to make his Villa debut until October as he continues to recover from a foot injury.

So it turns out Downing's last moment in a Boro shirt was being stretchered down the tunnel at the Riverside with Boro leading Villa 1-0 in their final home game. With Downing departed, a hitherto insipid Villa regrouped and Boro's momentum was never recovered. The game ended 1-1 and Boro were effectively down.

Downing made 234 appearances for the club since making his debut in a 1-0 defeat at Ipswich in April 2002, scoring 22 goals in the process. He's also earned 23 England caps, was in the 2004 Carling Cup winning squad and was pivotal in the dramatic run to the 2006 Uefa Cup final.

However, with Boro's decline since Eindhoven having culminated in relegation, Downing feels that a move to a competitive Premier League side is essential if he is to feature in South Africa next summer. In explaining his decision, Downing also admitted that January's transfer request was an error of judgement.

"The Boro fans have been brilliant to me. I'd like to thank them for all their support but especially for sticking by me after all the speculation in January," he said. "In hindsight, it was a mistake to ask for a move at that point. I was frustrated but I know now I should have waited until the summer."

In truth, most fans shared Downing's frustration. Where fans once mocked Villa as our 'feeder club' as Ehiogu, Southgate and Boateng defected to Teesside, no-one could argue with any sanity that they currently represent a step up in quality.

He broke into the team at a time when the club were showing real ambition, regularly coming off the bench during 2003-04 and being selected as an (unused) substitute for the Carling Cup final against Bolton.

Downing came off the bench to score against Newcastle on the opening day of the following season and did not look back. Scoring six goals and becoming a first team regular, Downing was integral in Steve McClaren's side's 7th place finish, ensuring a second successive season of European football on Teesside.

The following season was marred by a five month injury absence but the left winger still made a key contribution as Boro forged ahead in the cups and staved off the threat of relegation, scoring in the memorable 3-0 win over Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and also creating three goals in the semi-final fightback against Steaua Bucharest.

Downing was selected in the squad for the 2006 World Cup and was regularly picked in the starting eleven at the beginning of Steve McClaren's ill-fated reign as national coach. In 2007/08, Downing enjoyed perhaps his most productive season in a red shirt, scoring ten times with the final goal a thumping volley in the 8-1 molestation of Manchester City.

Off the back of that success, last season's form was disappointing. The pressure of being the side's sole creative outlet, frequently in addition to captaining the team, looked to be weighing heavily. Early season penalties against Stoke and Sunderland were missed and Downing ended the season without a league goal to his name.

There can be little argument with Downing's contention that he now needs to move to further his career. Having developed so quickly as part of a successful team under Steve McClaren, it has become clear that Downing's talents merit a stage that Boro are facing increasing difficulties in providing. It may be fashionable to disparage Downing (a habit a disturbing minority of our own fans seem to inexplicably cling to) but the best managers around (and Gareth Southgate) have consistently rated him.

The £12m fee should at least give Southgate the opportunity to step up the rebuilding process, although his mooted targets do not inspire a great deal of confidence. Boro have been heavily linked with out-of-contract Sheffield United striker Danny Webber, whose record of ten goals in two seasons does not suggest he will be the man to fire Boro back to the Premier League. The reported move for Hull midfielder Bryan Hughes does not convince either.

It is obvious that the calibre of player we can attract is now significantly lower. Nonetheless, the likes of Hughes and Webber will only pad out the squad. They're not the men to make Boro's stated target of winning the division come to fruition.

The departure of the finest player to graduate from Boro's much vaunted academy is a sad but inevitable. Downing carried himself with a level of professionalism and dignity that some of his team mates could have learned a lot from. If and when he returns to the Riverside with Villa, a warm welcome seems likely. Even in his absence, the funds raised by his sale could go a long way to funding a promotion push. Its a legacy Southgate mustn't squander.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Back to work

The Boro squad have returned to Rockliffe this week to begin pre-season training. With a month to go until the season opener against Sheffield United, there is still some work for the beleaguered Gareth Southgate to undertake.

There are some notable absentees from the training ground. Although the reports that Tuncay's absence is unauthorised are wide of the mark, expensive flops Mido and Afonso Alves have not bothered to turn up.

With Southgate believed to be keen to move on at least one of the pair, the Boro boss will have his work cut out after this latest lapse in professional standards. If this development is disappointing, few can be surprised. Mido has a long history of disruptive behaviour which was no secret before Boro paid Spurs £6m for the Egyptian in 2007. There has been little improvement since the move north with Mido's contribution seriously restricted by injuries and a relaxed attitude to personal fitness.

While it is has been some time since Boro condemned Mido to the naughty step, Southgate is likely to feel more let down by Alves' no-show. After a dismal showing in his first full season in England, it is unlikely Boro will be able to recoup anything like the £12.7m paid to Heerenveen in January 2008. The club's bargaining position is even weaker now.

Alves does have form in this area. He refused to attend a fans' award ceremony while trying to engineer an exit from the Dutch club in 2007. His agent released a statement to the press comparing his employers to Nazis.

"Much is said about slave labour in Brazil," it began. "And yet in some cantons of liberal Holland slave-trading instincts still bloom strong. Heerenveen have tied Afonso to the bars of an outdated contract. And yet now they ask him to go to their fans' awards ceremony! No. Why should Afonso show up at an event full of Nazis?"

That perhaps should have been a warning.

Two players who have turned up for training are new signings Mark Yeates and Danny Coyne. Coyne, 35, has signed on a free transfer from Tranmere and is expected to act as back-up to Brad Jones. While not a move that will attract the headlines, Coyne's performances in League One earned praise and he should provide some reliable cover. It should also allow young Jason Steele some time to develop.

Yeates has signed from Colchester for £500,000 with a reputation as a set piece specialist. Capable of playing down either wing or up front, the Irishman became a favourite at the U's after joining from Spurs. Boro will be hoping Yeates' lower division experience will help him to make an immediate impact.

There has been little else taking place on the transfer front. As expected, Ross Turnbull has accepted the cushy role of sitting on his arse watching Petr Cech and playing the occassional Carling Cup tie for Chelsea. Matthew Bates however has signed a new contract and seems likely to be heavily involved in the first team picture next season.

With last season's horribly ineffective midfield and attack still largely untouched, July promises to be a busy month. The desire to sell duds like Mido must be balanced with the need to raise cash should offers be received for more desirable players. At the same time, Boro need to bolster both the first team and the squad to ensure they're ready for a gruelling 46 game season while working out their budget on the fly. There is much work to do.