THE RETURN of Boro’s parmo-powered prodigal play-maker can galvanise the Riverside.
If Stewart Downing can hit the sizzling form he showed at West Ham last term, he can help fire his home town club back to the Premier League. He can be a game-changer. A hero.
This is a pivotal moment that feeds into the narrative of past glories, of the big name signing sweeping into town to energise the team and the town and to create some emotional momentum. It could be a ‘Merson moment.”
After some solid platform-building by Aitot Karanka last term, the Boro stage is set for a hero to play the star role in an historic production. And this hero is definitely “one of our own.” Stewie Downing is as Teesside as the Transporter. He is from one of the heartland estates that have bred generations of Boro diehards and for all his top flight travels has never really emotional left Middlesbrough. He is back at every opportunity.
And that is important. Downing knows exactly what football and Boro means to the pride and identity of ordinary people whether they go to games or not and he understands the passion that it evokes.
And he knows too the narcotic high of glory at the Riverside, has had the scent of success in his nostrils as he starred in front of a pulsating full house. Downing appreciates what his home-coming entails on and off the pitch. He knows what is at stake for himself and for Boro. He knows the challenges. He knows the potential rewards.
And he will know too that the timing is right: the club are well placed for a great revival, he is ripe for a new challenge and there is vacancy for a kingpin player to seize the day.
For Boro this can be a Magic moment that echoes the electrifying impact of Paul Merson.
Back in July 1997 the maverick midfielder left Arsenal and stepped down from the top flight and after buying into Bryan Robson’s vision of the Riverside Revolution. It was a massive gamble for the in-demand England international to drop down a division to join a relegated side and it was risk for Boro to go for a bad boy with baggage. Merson was on the naughty step at Arsenal after a spell in rehab for booze, betting and cocaine addictions.
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But the move paid dividends for both parties. In spades. The silky schemer – “the Magic Man” – pulled the strings and tore the league apart as bubbling Boro secured promotion back to the elite at the first attempt, dancing through defences and scoring goals but also laying chances on a plate for Mikkel Beck, Hamilton Ricard and Marco Branca.
Merson became a fans’ favourite while his swaggering shows, despite being in the second tier, earned him first an England recall and then a place on the plane to the 1998 World Cup in France. His swift exit to Aston Villa on his return and the bad-mouthing of all and sundry as his demons took grip again soured his spell as a Riverside hero and for a while he was filed under “Judas” but that shouldn’t erase either the memories of his poise on the pitch or the impact he had on the team. Paul Merson was the man who got Boro promoted that season. Not single-handedly but he made the team tick.
Stewart Downing’s return to Teesside can have a similar dramatic impact next season.
Like Merson, he can be the catalyst for a promotion push and the creative heart of a reshaped team with a new emphasis on attack. He can be the hero. The creative force. Her can sprinkle the magic dust at the Riverside.
Boro were rock solid at the back last term and competitive in midfield. But they lacked a spark up front at time. They lacked nous. They lacked a player to play a killer pass to unlock a disciplined defence sat deep.
Downing played in the crucial No 10 role can be the man to unshackle the tactical chains of teams who set out to defend.
Imagine Downing picking out perfect passes to find the jet-heeled runs of Albert Adomah or Muzzy Carayol down the flanks. Imagine him finding the head or feet of a striker bursting into the box. Imagine Downing adding some hunter-killer laser guided deadball deliveries to Boro’s attacking armoury.
What Downing can add to this team is mouth-watering prospect. Especially in the Championship – but also possibly beyond. If he does help take Boro up then he can still be a key component as the team find their feet at the higher level.
And he has matured as a player during his years away from the Riverside.
At Boro he was the man with chalk on his boots, an archetypal winger with a sweet left foot marauding down the left and pinging in pin-point crosses to the near post, the far post and onto the foreheads of team-mates in the box. He was a potent force and assist king, carving teams open through some of the most exciting times in the Boro’s history.
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He still has that vision and the accuracy with his deliveries but has added years of experience playing under some demanding managers in a variety of shapes and roles. Don’t buy the tired tabloid lazy labelling: “he’s rubbish.” No he isn’t. He won the player of the year gong at Villa at a time when they were challenge the top six and was hailed as pivotal in the Hammers assault on the big boys last term. It was only at Liverpool he was under a cloud and part of that was because he was put in the scapegoat envelope by cack-handed armchair psychologist Brendan Rodgers.
And in recent years he has found a new range of skills as he has switched inside to become a polished performer with a deft touch and sharp distribution and an instinct to make things happen in an attacking midfield role – exactly where Boro need an extra edge.
The return of the Pallister Park prodigy could be a vital piece in Boro’s promotion jigsaw.
It is a huge statement of intent by the club: they are making a bank-busting investment for a Championship club to bring in top talent in a key role. They are paying a guaranteed £5.5m to West Ham and performance and promotion bonuses could take that to £7m. He has taken a big cut in his wages from about £60,000 a week to “only” £30,000 (although it is over an extra two years and still adds up to £6.2m so he won’t starve) and will get a big promotion golden EIO if he delivers. It is a huge commitment for a Championship club. But Steve Gibson’s calculation is that if he gets Boro back into the big time it will be worth it.
Boro have signed a player in his pomp that a string of Premier League clubs covet and could far more easily afford. That screams of an new flush of open ambition at Boro that echoes the script-ripping optimistic early years of the Riverside era when it seemed there were no limits to possibilities and our dreams.
But the coup speaks to something else deep in the Teesside psyche too. It speaks of the end of austerity and a poverty on the pitch a return to the good times.
Downing’s exit came at a watershed moment for the club, the point at which the music stopped and Boro were left stood sheepishly without a chair and when suddenly the world crashed down.
Boro’s relegation came as the world banking crisis caused a credit crunch and the easy cash of previous years was cut off. With the toxic shock of demotion and a £90m debt suddenly Boro were a selling club – and Downing’s exit to Aston Villa was the signal for the first team to be filleted of genuine top flight quality.
Downing’s departure marked a period of darkness, of slump, of cost-cutting and decline as the club’s power, status and ambitions faded fast. He was the first flogged off as Boro went on a long slide of powerless retrenchment and frustrating belt-tightening and pain.
On his departure, Downing vowed he would return to the club “when the time was right.” He gave Gibson his word. This may not be the stuff of Arthurian legend and the return of a hero king at a moment of existaential crisis but it is nice to thing that the home-coming may signal that, once again, “the time is right for Middlesbrough.
There is a felling abroad that that his return signals a return to the good times. It has certainly brought back a buzz to Teesside. It will be seen as a resurgent club flexing its market muscle and setting out a clear agenda, and one that excites.
This is a landmark moment. Steve Gibson has shown his ambition and his willingness to spend to achieve success. Traditionally the Teesside public have responded to that in kind with bums on seats and foam fingered optimism.
If Downing inspires the team to promotion the Riverside will be rocking like the old days.