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’.”
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 price-tag 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.
“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!”
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.”