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A drop Downing: A look at local heroes returning home



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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Leeds United should target u-20 World Cup winner Callum Connolly this summer

Everton’s Joe Williams has been linked with Leeds United this week, but Connolly could be a better option.



This week has seen Leeds United manager Paul Heckingbottom being linked with moves for three players he knows from his time at former club Barnsley. It was reported by the Sun (18/3 pg 60) that Leeds could make a triple swoop for striker Oliver McBurnie, defender Andy Yiadom and midfielder Joe Williams.

Heckingbottom signed Williams for Barnsley in the summer on loan from Everton. The 21-year-old has since made himself a mainstay in the team as the Tykes battle at the bottom of the Championship.

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 31: Joe Williams of Barnsley celebrates scoring his team’s third goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Burton Albion and Barnsley at Pirelli Stadium on October 31, 2017 in Burton-upon-Trent, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

But whilst Williams would be an excellent recruit for Leeds, another Everton midfielder on loan in the Championship should also be considered. The player in question is Callum Connolly. The 20-year-old is currently enjoying a loan spell at Ipswich Town. Recently however, he made it clear he could leave Everton in the summer, telling Green’Un 24:

“Anything can happen. Let’s see what happens between now and the end of the season.

“Obviously I’m enjoying my football at Ipswich Town and I’ve been made to feel at home here, even though it is a long way from home.

“I’ve had contact with Everton, but not as much as I expected. I think they’ve just let me get on with my football.

“There hasn’t been as much support as I’ve wanted to be honest…”

Connolly would be another great acquisition by Leeds. The youngster has shown on his loan spell at Ipswich that he is more than capable at the Championship level.

The England under-20 World Cup winner is, like Williams, known to Heckingbottom. Connolly featured three times for Barnsley during a one-month loan deal back in March 2016. At the time Heckingbottom was the caretaker manager at Barnsley, later going on to secure their promotion to the Championship and the EFL Trophy.

IPSWICH, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 02: Callum Connolly of Ipswich Town celebrates his opening goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest at Portman Road on December 2, 2017 in Ipswich, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Connolly is highly thought of at Everton by the fanbase but clearly the structure at Goodison Park at present has failed him. The 20-year-old, who has scored three times for Ipswich this season, is clearly concerned about where his career is going if he remains at Everton long into the future.

Not only is he a brilliant central midfield option, but Connolly is extremely versatile. He made his Everton debut as a right-back and can play as a wing-back or right midfielder if called upon.

Leeds have struggled at the back this season, so having another option in that area would also be a good reason to sign Connolly.

Williams would be a good addition from Leeds. But Connolly might in fact be the better option if Heckingbottom is looking to bring in a familiar face from the past.

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Aston Villa

Steve Bruce’s lack of confidence in Scott Hogan made evident

The striker saw Rushian Hepburn-Murphy given a chance ahead of him v Bolton Wanderers.



When Aston Villa snapped up Scott Hogan last January he looked a smart recruit. Villa paid a fee reported to be in the region of £12 million by the BBC.

Hogan had been in fine form with Brentford previous to the transfer being made.He had scored 21 goals in 34 games for the club since joining from Rochdale in July 2014.

Aston Villa were hopeful he could have a similar goalscoring impact at Villa Park. That has not exactly been the case. Hogan has managed just six goals in 44 league appearances for Aston Villa and has struggled to live up to his price-tag.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND – MARCH 13: Steve Bruce manager of Aston Villa looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers at Villa Park on March 13, 2018 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images,)

After the Bolton Wanderers game yesterday, Hogan will be wondering where he stands at Villa Park.

Aston Villa lost 1-0 against relegation battlers Bolton Wanderers this weekend. The defeat was a bitter blow to Villa’s automatic promotion hopes, with Villa now seven points behind Cardiff City in second.

But whilst chasing the game, after Adam Le Fondre had given Bolton the lead, Bruce looked to the Villa bench. He decided to bring on another striker to partner Lewis Grabban up top. But, instead of going to Hogan, Bruce brought on 19-year-old Rushian Hepburn-Murphy.

The pacey striker had only played 15 minutes of first-team football this season and is yet to score a senior goal.

Hogan eventually did make his way onto the pitch but could not prove Bruce wrong for turning to the teenager instead.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND – MAY 07: Paul Dummett of Newcastle United and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy of Aston Villa compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Newcastle United at Villa Park on May 7, 2016 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

But it highlights an obvious lack of confidence in the £12 million striker from Bruce. Hogan last scored in the Championship at the start of February and it is a serious concern as Villa now look likely to challenge for the play-off places in the Championship.                                                                                                                                                         

Hogan will hope he can take a chance to get back in the good books soon, after the Hepburn-Murphy experiment fell flat at the Macron Stadium. If not, then his future at Villa Park is looking increasingly bleak.

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Aston Villa

Aston Villa fans baffled by Steve Bruce’s risky Rushian Hepburn-Murphy move

The 19-year-old was a shock substitution by Aston Villa in yesterday’s Bolton defeat.



Aston Villa’s automatic promotion hopes look to be over. Following on from their shock 3-1 loss to QPR in the week Steve Bruce’s men lost 1-0 at Bolton Wanderers yesterday.

The result leaves Villa in fourth place, but seven points behind Cardiff City in second. The Bluebirds also have a game in hand.

Villa never really got into the game against the Trotters and, after they beat Championship leaders Wolves 4-1, Villa have struggled.

As Villa began chasing the game yesterday, Steve Bruce made several changes to try and find a goal.

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images,)

But one which shocked many Aston Villa fans was the decision to bring on Rushian Hepburn-Murphy.

The 19-year-old striker was brought on for Conor Hourihane in a bold and attacking move, which did not work.

The decision left the Villa formation misshapen. Not only that, but Hepburn-Murphy has barely had a kick all season. Suddenly thrusting the teenager into the spotlight seemed an odd move from Bruce.

The teen had played just 12 minutes of Championship football before being thrown into action yesterday. His call up to the first-team was likely a reward for a fine recent performance v Reading for the under-23s. But Hepburn-Murphy was not the answer to Villa’s problems yesterday afternoon.

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Many Villa fans were surprised he was even on the bench in the first place. Bringing on Keinan Davis would have been a more logical move from Bruce. He also had Scott Hogan on the bench if he wanted to bring on another striker, but instead, Bruce tried the youngster.

It was a move that did not work and left Villa fans thoroughly frustrated with their manager yet again. It now seems Villa will have to settle for the play-offs, which they will try consolidate in the coming weeks.

Here is how some Aston Villa fans reacted to the decision to field Hepburn-Murphy yesterday afternoon…

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