STEWART DOWN­ING BIG IN­TER­VIEW, GRAHAM WEST­LEY COL­UMN

The Football League Paper - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Dunlavy

STEWART DOWN­ING still re­mem­bers the icy Teesside af­ter­noons when he would stand on the River­side touch­line dream­ing of em­u­lat­ing his he­roes.

Bryan Rob­son, Fabrizio Ra­vanelli, Jun­inho and Emer­son – for a lad of 12 the idea of sup­plant­ing World Cup stars and in­ter­na­tion­als seemed light years away. “I’d stood on the ter­races at Ayre­some as a kid,” says Down­ing, now 31.“So just to get signed up was un­real. They were great days, for me and the club. “Me and the other youth team lads used to get free tick­ets. We’d play on the Satur­day morn­ing and then go straight to the sta­dium and be ball boys.

“Peo­ple talk about the side with Ra­vanelli and Jun­inho and it was great. But I’ll never for­get watch­ing Paul Mer­son the sea­son we came up from the Cham­pi­onship. What a player!

“For me, it was a great in­spi­ra­tion. You were right there, inches away from all these big stars think­ing ‘That could be me’.”

Home­town

And just a cou­ple of years later, it was. A de­but aged 19 in April 2002. League Cup tri­umph in 2004.The first of 35 Eng­land caps in 2005 and, in 2006, de­feat in the UEFA Cup fi­nal. By the time he de­parted in a £10m switch to As­ton Villa in 2009, Down­ing was the club’s long­est-serv­ing player and a lo­cal hero.

Now, six years on, he has re­turned to his spir­i­tual home hav­ing turned his back on Premier League football in a bid to fire his home­town club back to the top flight.

And just as he once grew up watch­ing the stars he’d later call friends, so the likes of Ben Gib­son and Adam Reach are now rub­bing shoul­ders with a guy whose im­age once adorned their bed­room walls.

“Yeah, it’s funny to think that,” says Down­ing, a £5.5m sign­ing from West Ham. “I re­mem­ber play­ing with Jun­inho when he came back for his third spell. He’d been our hero as kids, the player we all looked up to and wanted to be.

“So get­ting to play along­side him – and see­ing what a nice guy he was – was great. I just hope I can make the same im­pres­sion!

“To be fair, help­ing the young lads here is some­thing I take se­ri­ously.

“When I was com­ing through I had ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple around me like Jimmy Floyd Has­sel­baink, Mark Viduka and Colin Cooper.

“When he was fit, Mark Viduka was bril­liant. He was top drawer and, for me, one of the best strik­ers in the Premier League.

“For a midfielder like me, he was great.You could give him any kind of ball and know he would hold it up. And once you got him fir­ing, he was un­playable. It’s just a shame he couldn’t stay fit.

“And Jimmy was good in a dif­fer­ent way. If you gave him the ball in an even half dan­ger­ous po­si­tion, nine times out of ten it would end in the back of the net. If you look at all his goals, it’s pure power. Even his head­ers seemed to go in at a hun­dred miles an hour.

“I had a few ‘rol­lick­ings’ off Jimmy and I’m happy to ad­mit he could be quite scary. He used to have a go at me a lot. But it al­ways had a point and I’m grate­ful for the help.

“Look­ing back, it was great, be­cause they all took the time to help. When I first got into the team, they talked me through games, picked me up af­ter mis­takes, all those things.

“No young lad plays bril­liantly ev­ery week and there will be days when it all goes wrong. You’ve just got to keep on at them, crit­i­cise when nec­es­sary and then re­as­sure when it’s needed.

“Ob­vi­ously con­fi­dence can go a lit­tle bit if the crowd gets on you and no­body is born with the abil­ity to han­dle that – it’s some­thing you have to learn.That’s what Jimmy and Mark did for me and that’s what I want to do now.”

When it comes to de­flect­ing the pel­ters, Down­ing is a dab hand. Signed by Liver­pool boss Kenny Dal­glish for a stag­ger­ing £20m in July 2011, the winger fa­mously fin­ished his first Premier League sea­son at An­field with nei­ther a goal nor an as­sist to his name.

Dal­glish was sacked, his ex­pen­sively as­sem­bled squad dis­man­tled and – af­ter a patchy cam­paign un­der

Bren­dan Rodgers – Down­ing was widely la­belled a flop and shipped off to West Ham. Did that crazy pric­etag weigh him down?

“Not at all,” in­sists Down­ing, whose ar­rival at An­field along­side Char­lie Adam and Jor­dan Hen­der­son took Dal­glish’s to­tal out­lay to £120m. “If they want to spend £20m, that’s their de­ci­sion. I’m just there to do a job.

Con­fi­dence

“What con­fused me was that they’d spent all that money on a group of play­ers and then we didn’t play. There’d be two or three on the pitch, two or three on the bench. And I’m think­ing ‘Why would you spend all that on a bunch of sub­sti­tutes?’

“Peo­ple maybe point the fin­ger at the lads who were brought in, but it was the whole team that strug­gled. They were strug­gling be­fore we even got there.

“Yes, we spent a lot of money. And no, we didn’t fin­ish as high as we’d wanted. But we still fin­ished eighth, reached two cup fi­nals and win­ning one of them.

“Peo­ple say ‘Oh but you spent £120m, you should have won the league’. But Bren­dan spent heav­ily last sea­son and his team ar­guably didn’t do as well as us.

“Do I wish it had gone bet­ter? Of course I do. It’s a great club with very pa­tient fans who de­served more. And I’m still con­vinced that if Kenny had stayed, we’d have kicked on. “Ei­ther way, my time there was far from a dis­as­ter.”

Re­ju­ve­nated as a No.10 at Up­ton Park, Down­ing net­ted six – his best re­turn in four years – and even mus­cled his way back into the Eng­land side. So why, with his ca­reer on the up, did he take a step down?

“I just couldn’t re­sist com­ing home,” he ex­plains. “And at my age, it’s just some­thing that bit dif­fer­ent to play for.

“I knew about the in­ter­est but, to be hon­est, I didn’t think West Ham would let me go. But then they got a new man­ager (Slaven Bilic), Sun­der­land made an of­fer and, when that wasn’t re­jected out of hand, Mid­dles­brough came in with one of their own.

“It all hap­pened very quickly af­ter that. One minute I was set­tled at West Ham. A week later I was back at Boro and play­ing in a pre-sea­son game down at Scun­thorpe!”

Ex­pec­ta­tion

Beaten in the play-off fi­nal by Nor­wich in May, Boro’s long-serv­ing owner Steve Gib­son (who has been on the board since the year Down­ing was born) has coughed up al­most £16m in trans­fer fees to en­sure the club can go one bet­ter.

“When I com­pare Boro and West Ham, there’s not much dif­fer­ence,” in­sists Down­ing, who had never played in the Cham­pi­onship be­fore this sea­son.

“The team is as good and there’s a lot of op­ti­mism that we won’t need the play-offs. The buzz re­minds me of those days when I came through.

“Yes, you can feel the ex­pec­ta­tion af­ter the money we’ve spent. But it’s good pres­sure. “If you can’t en­joy be­ing in a good team that’s ex­pected to be win­ning things, then you should be do­ing some­thing else.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

HOME BOY: Stewart Down­ing is back at Boro and tar­get­ing the top-flight WISE HEADS: Jimmy Floyd Has­sel­baink, left, and Mark Viduka men­tored the young­sters in Down­ing’s first Boro spell

STAR QUAL­ITY: Brazil­ian mae­stro Jun­inho had three dif­fer­ent spells at Mid­dles­brough

ON THE RISE: Down­ing is hop­ing to pass on his knowl­edge to Boro young­sters like Adam Reach (left)

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