Stewart Downing’s move to Championship rivals Blackburn Rovers was confirmed on Friday, putting an end to his second spell with the club after a combined 11 years wearing Boro red.
Since the announcement that his contract would not be renewed by the club, there has been much debate about whether Stewart Downing fulfilled his potential. While that is a debate for another day, there shouldn’t be any doubts that the Pallister Park lad is a bona fide Boro legend.
He signed his first professional contract at the turn of the millennium and went on to play over 400 times for Boro. To put that into perspective, the next player in the list of club appearances is Ben Gibson with 203, almost half of the number of Downings.
He hasn’t made that many appearances by accident, in his day Downing was a wing wizard and there’s an argument to suggest that given England’s problems on the left wing in the 2000s, Downing should have more than 35 caps he has collected for his country.
Speaking of international football, only 2 academy graduates have earned more caps than Downing, Australia’s Luke Wilkshire and Scotland’s James Morrison. In terms of the caps England, the only other notable player to have played for the senior team is Adam Johnson with 12.
His first spell with the club was undoubtedly his most successful. 234 appearances from 2001 to 2009, with 22 goals scored in that period and plenty of memories. Every fan remembers the Massimo Maccarone header against Steaua Bucharest, but who was it that whipped in the pinpoint cross from the left?
He scored one of the best goals the Riverside has ever seen with his sublime outside of the foot volley in the 8-1 demolition of Manchester City. While the Carling Cup win came a bit early in Downing’s career, while he was on the bench for the game, he was a huge part of the UEFA Cup run which is regarded as one of the best periods for supporting the club.
Even during the Southgate era, Downing must’ve felt at times like he was carrying the side as he was often the standout player in the side. How Boro managed to keep hold of Downing during these years, is a credit to Steve Gibson, who was making cuts but recognised he couldn’t afford to lose the wing wizard.
He did eventually leave the club in 2009 and went onto to play for Aston Villa, Liverpool and West Ham in the Premier League, moving for nearly £40m in transfer fees. That alone shows his undoubted quality. Then, in 2015, came his return.
Now there is a debate as to whether Downing was a signing that Aitor Karanka wanted, but the £5.5m fee was the most spent during the Spaniard’s tenure until Jordan Rhodes’ arrival the following January.
He came in with one remit, get the club back in the Premier League. He succeeded in that, Boro were promoted in his first season at the club, scoring 3 and claiming 5 assists in 45 league appearances. He also stuck with the club through their relegation and has been a popular figure under Tony Pulis, even winning over Garry Monk after initially being told to train away from the first team.
Downing can leave the Riverside with his head held high. He’s been seen as the golden boy during his first spell and then booed by his own supporters during his second spell, but he has always given his all and never hidden his love of the club.
He has his critics – who doesn’t – but Downing will go down as one of the best players to have graced the Riverside pitch, and certainly the best to come from the academy.