Stewart Downing’s return to Middlesbrough last week incited sentiment and allegiance that is becoming less and less common in the modern game. Yes, we see high-profile cult hero comebacks such as Thierry Henri’s and Didier Drogba’s to Arsenal and Chelsea, respectively. But a boy born and bred in a city, climbing his way through the academy, breaking into the first team? For him to leave and return some years later is a special occurrence.
There is much evidence to suggest this move was sourced more from the heart than the head. Firstly, the recent season was Downing’s most outstanding set of performances since his breakthrough season in 2006-2007. According to Opta, the midfielder was the most creative player in the top flight with 85 chances created.
Downing was also the most consistent player in an inconsistent West Ham team. This prompted the incoming Hammers manager, Staven Bilic to implore him remain at the club. The Croatian coach is reported to be severely disappointed in his failure to persuade the winger to stay and assist West Ham in the new campaign.
Secondly, horizontal moves to other Premier League suitors such as Sunderland and Newcastle were also on the table.
But despite these numerous opportunities to stay at a top division standard, Downing opted to drop to the Championship to his boyhood club. Middlesbrough were disappointed to miss out on Premier League promotion and no doubt will have more belief in their efforts this time round with the new arrival filling outgoing Patrick Bamford’s boots.
There are many players who choose to return to their start-out clubs during the twilight of their career. Ian Rush’s comeback to Liverpool, Peter Beardsley’s move back to St James Park and Graeme Le Saux’s to Chelsea to name a few. But what’s the reasoning? Footballers have historically done this as they’ve matured as an attempt to recapture their glory years. At age 31 Stewart’s drop-Downing is no doubt an example of this, spring boarding off a sparkling term of resurgence in his career.
However, applying a familiar formula doesn’t always result in the revitalisation of a footballer’s career. Rickie Lambert’s sweet dream move to Liverpool last summer didn’t carry the same weight into the season. Yet it did prove one thing – the fans never turn on one of their own. This has to be another pull-factor. Despite scoring only 3 goals in 25 appearances in the recent season, Lambert was always greeted warmly on entering the pitch. Even the Southampton fans who were enraged by the pillaging of their squad last summer could not find fault in his return to Merseyside.
In an age when footballers are more like mercenaries, when Champions League qualification and six-figure weekly salaries carry the biggest swing over a footballer’s destiny, fans relish the nature of a loyal player. The support from fans makes a home-grown boy an instant favourite. The club becomes an attractive place to play-out their days of playing. They assume the role of veterans overlooking the squad, guiding the younger players and consolidating an everlasting legacy as local folk hero.
The fairy tale ending for Downing would be to retain his great form into the oncoming campaign to fight with Middlesbrough to achieve promotion; his return to his homegrown club symbolising the initiator for their return to the Premier League.
Downing told the Sunderland Echo that “there was the pull of my home town club and the plans the chairman had and the players he is looking to bring in, not that I’m going to tell you who they are! I want to be a part of this. I want to be where there is something to play for, to play for a good team, a good manager and a promotion push.”
In a career that has been blighted by injury and failed expectations, Downing has shown resilience in shaking off the bad reputation that stuck to him after his disappointment at Merseyside after the record fee of £20 million. To overthrow such a stereotype is no mean feat, as any footballer will tell you. Now, the player has a season behind him that will fill him with confidence.
Stewart Downing’s story is one that has the makings of footballing legend. A player at the height of his ability and at the helm of his career choices, he can become a hero by helping their promotion back into the Premier League. Downing had too much potential to withhold their relegation in 2009, but the player now returns as a finished article. Where others have failed in similar endeavours, Downing’s looks one that could become easily fulfilled. Only time will tell.
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