THE INEVITABLE exit of Stewart Downing in a mooted ÃÂ£12m move to Aston Villa will be greeted with a resigned shrug by many.
The left-footed local wing wizard was a major disappointment last season and came in for increasing fire from frustrated terrace snipers. After being the 10 goal top gun in the previous term he had undeniably lost some sizzle. He failed to score in the league and failed to sprinkle games with magical match-winning moments as he had in the past while the main memories of the campaign may well be a costly missed penalty at Sunderland and the disruption of a January transfer request.
But one lack-lustre spell in a struggling team on the slide should not blind us to nature of the quality we are losing. You don’t know what you have until its gone.
Stewart Downing is an explosive natural talent, a brilliant winger with pace, the ability to beat his man and pin-point crossing. He has been the constant creative force that has under-pinned all Boro’s attacking options for years.
He has been Boro’s assist king from the moment he weaved his way into the first team picture, supplying deadly balls into the box with bewildering accuracy and frequency for the likes of Viduka, Hasselbaink and Yakubu to bang home.
Think back to just about every pulsating performance by Boro in recent years and he will have been at the heart of it. Take the fairy-tale fight-back against Steaua. Massimo may well have grabbed the head-lines with the heart-stopping horizontal header at the death but it was Stewie who ripped the Romanian’s apart in a devastating display and teed up three of the four goals with sublime balls into the danger zone.
Last season, despite his dip, the Opta stats showed he was the second most prolific crosser behind Ashley Young (ironically the man he may replace). It is not his fault that Boro lacked a striker capable to make them count.
Yes, Downing has his critics, not least the tunnel-visioned Riverside ranters who think he is faint-hearted – or a “fanny” in terrace speak – because he doesn’t charge around the pitch risking injury going into tackles that are 60/40 against.
But that is not his job. It is not what he is in the team for. You don’t get Michaelangelo in to paint the ceiling then berate him for not sanding down the skirting board.
Likewise, the England sheep – in the crowd and the press box – irrationally elected him small club scapegoat long ago and booed him as an angry default irrespective of his perfectly respectable, solid and productive displays or by the far more obvious ineptitude on show from untouchable teammates from bigger clubs.
His critics should take note that Downing has been rated by the last three England managers, by Martin Jol, Juande Ramos, Rafa Benitez and by Harry Redknapp. And by Martin O’Neill too, and he is no mug when it comes to spotting burgeoning young talent and harnessing it.
Downing will hopefully flourish at Villa and grow in stature in a well resourced team where he is not over-burdened with expectations as both the main creative force and the heavy mantle of local hero.
Good. He deserves the chance and very few Boro supporters will begrudge him an opportunity to challenge for honours. He has served us well and not rocked the boat even when plenty of supporters believed he had good reason. He stayed long after the money spiders left and when the big offers came last year and Boro’s post-Eindhoven slide kicked in, he signed a new deal and opted to give it one more year.
Even after slapping in his transfer request in January few blamed him and in the aftermath his performances improved and he got a warm reception from the fans and the news of his exit has been greeted with relative sympathy.
The generous farewell though is a double-edged sword. It comes with a heavy-hearted recognition that he is leaving primarily because his chance to win things with his home town club has now gone.
Losing Downing is as strong a signal as is possible that Boro’s own tilt at the top is over.
After a decade of big spending on stars the club have endured a damaging three year name drain as Boro’s financial muscle has withered and the ability to attract household names has faded into the mists of time.
We know that. The Foreign Legion were only here for the money. None of them had Boro tattoos or accents as wide as the Transporter. The likes of Ravanelli, Boksic and Viduka were only ever on board because of the big bucks. Players like that will always come and go and in truth it is no big deal.
But when you start to lose your local lads it hurts. The importance of local accents in the dressing room can’t be overstated at a fiercely parochial club like Boro. They reinforce the strong sense of identity of the crowd and their proxies on the pitch and having some true Teessiders in the team has been a source of pride.
And local talent has also been put at the heart of Boro’s model for creating a club that can compete with the big boys. It has been made clear that this middling team can not match the mega-money muscle of the big boys in the transfer market and so must find and produce the core of the team through youth development.
That’s why the chairman has put such faith in the academy and why he has fought to keep Stewie. He reportedly intervened forcefully and put his foot down when Steve McClaren was poised to accept measly offers from Blackburn, Wigan and Sunderland when he was still just a scrawny teenager trying to break into the team. That is why the chairman has several times personally persuaded him to resist the lure of Spurs.
Downing is the most talented home grown hero in a generation and his departure is heavy with political and psychological sub-text. Yes, we have seen other academy graduates move on. Andrew Davies, James Morrison and Lee Cattermole in recent years have all left and joined the dias-boro but with the best will in the world they are not of the unquestionable international calibre of Stewie.
They are good professionals and some may still rue their departure or yearn for a reunion – but they haven’t got 23 England caps and a World Cup to their name. Stewie was the first locally born Boro player to feature on that stage since Alan Peacock in 1962. Only Wilf Mannion can boast more England caps while at the club.
Stewie was the jewel in the crown of the prodigious Boro Academy production line, a shining talent and obvious star from an early age. Keeping him and building a team around him was a symbol of the possibility of a new Boro, a club that could find, nurture and retain the best of Teesside talent to create a team that was brimming with local pride and passion and that the crowd could relate to.
That he has left – and to Aston Villa, a team we plundered at will just a few years ago – will send out dark messages that we are a selling club, that we can’t compete for the top talent and that once again our brightest and best must leave to fulfill their ambitions.
The fee – reported to be ÃÂ£12m – will fall short of ÃÂ£12.5m record received when Juninho left for Atletico but as Stewie joined Boro as a Pallister Park schoolboy and never cost a penny it represents far and away the biggest pure profit ever made by the club.
That is a silver lining that we can’t allow to be tarnished by squandering the cash on short term crisis management. If Boro are to avoid a corrosive political backlash from fans over losing such a potent symbol of the club’s very ethos then they must make sure that windfall is very wisely invested.
Most fans will accept even the best players will move on if it is shrewd business for Boro – but wasting the Downing dividend will be a disaster. The money must be seen as not just a quick cash in but as a catalyst. It must be used to not just start the rebuilding of the team but also the rebuilding of morale, of hope and ambition. It must be seen to lay the foundations of a team that can challenge for a swift return for the elite.
If Downing’s exit can not be quickly turned into a boon for Boro then it will call into question the entire logic of the Academy system and it will be a damning indictment of the strategic vision of the club’s management. Failure to make the Downing cash count will deepen the current crisis of faith and widen the gulf between club and fans.
**This is a DJ Stewie tribute Wheels of Steel Purple Onion Remix of a comment piece in today’s old fangled paper Gazette.
**PHIL Tallentire spoke exclusively to Stewie yesterday and touched on some key points over his exit. Here’s the Q&A from today’s Gazette.
**AND here’s some interesting links from my trendy down with the kids Twitter feed over the last couple of days… if you are not following it you don’t know what gems you are missing.
Is American sport too socialist, European football too capitalist? A US perspective.
Mo Johnson’s Old Firm transfer hand grenade 20 years on. A short history of the development sectarianism in Glasgow football.
Somersaults and dodgy late night motor-biking: a profile of evergreen Boro boo-boy target Peter Beagrie, the most Teesside accent on television.