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.

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