Stewart Downing: threat of Liverpool axe saved my career
THERE are two moments that stick out in Stewart Downing’s sporting life. The first came as a child, growing up on Middlesbrough’s deprived Pallister Park estate, when he made the “conscious decision” not to pursue the same lifestyle that led to some of his friends ending up in prison.
The second came far more recently, when Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers bluntly told the England international earlier this season that he had no future at the club and was free to leave – and then publicly accused him of not working hard enough.
At the time Downing’s mind flitted back to the infamous ‘envelopes’ incident just before the start of the season, when Rodgers used the old mind trick of claiming in a squad meeting to have written the names of three players who would let down the club and placed them in envelopes, a moment caught on camera for the Being: Liverpool documentary.
“I just thought: ‘I don’t want to let him down.’ But after he said what he said to me, I did think that maybe mine is one of the names in the envelopes,” Downing says. “I think he was testing people, testing their characters, asking: ‘Can they respond to criticism? Can they deal with a setback?’
“You can have great ability but if you can’t deal with that, especially at a big club, then it won’t work. You have to be mentally strong at the top because you get that criticism all the time.”
Six months later it has come full circle. Downing is a regular in the Liverpool side, Rodgers was surprised he did not recently earn an England recall and the manager has told the 28-year-old that there is “no way” he will be sold this summer.
“He wants me to stay, he’s told me that,” Downing says, ahead of today’s meeting with his former club, Aston Villa, who he left in the summer of 2011. “He said I have been brilliant and that’s why he wants me to play every week. So, for me, that’s all put to bed now.”
At the time it felt very different. Rodgers had questioned whether Downing had the “fight” to be at Liverpool and whether he was willing to “work hard”. That accusation, in particular, hurt.
“I was left thinking: ‘Where’s he got that from? What’s he seeing?’ One thing I have always tried to do is work hard. But, yes, I did use it as motivation. He said I could go but I didn’t want to go – and maybe that’s why he did it. We spoke and I told him I was frustrated at being in and out, in and out. And ‘frustration’ is the one word that summed it up.
“It was like a kick in the teeth; a shock. It hurt, it really did. I cannot afford not to be playing. Not at my age. He said: ‘If things don’t change you are free to leave.’ He was quite open about it and credit to him for that.
“Everyone thought when he said it that that was it for me but I have actually always got on well with the manager and I have always worked hard. At Middlesbrough with Steve McClaren, I worked hard in a defensive, counter-attacking team and at Aston Villa it was the same.
“But the biggest criticism you can have is the manager saying you can go and I had that. I just felt I needed a chance, that I needed a run of games.”
Injuries hit and Downing got that chance, unexpectedly, at left-back. “From then my aim was to play well and make him not leave me out. That was my aim but I also had to think that if I was leaving I had better play well for a move. Now I’m playing regularly and it means you can play with that bit more freedom.
“Players will be signed in the summer but that’s not a problem for me. They’ve come to get my place in the past and there are plenty of wingers here at the moment who are not playing. One bad game and I might be out of the team so every week I have to be ‘bang-on’ and make sure the manager keeps thinking: ‘I have to play him.’ I’m in possession of that shirt.”
Being “in possession of the shirt” is a phrase Downing often uses. It is an almost symbolic recognition of how far he has come, and how long he wants to stay there.
At Villa Park today, it will be an afternoon imbued with meaning. Not just because he played for Villa but because his father, also named Stewart, almost made it as a professional player there – only to have to “sacrifice” his career for his family. Indeed Downing Snr still has the letter inviting him for a trial.
“Now and again he shows me that letter,” Downing says. “But my mum was pregnant [Downing has three sisters plus a fourth who died from leukaemia] so he had to pass it up. He’s 52 now and still quick. He had to stop playing – he sacrificed himself, in a way, working on the North Sea oil rigs, working as a painter and decorator. He did what it took just to buy me boots.”
The girls were into dance – Downing’s older sister Natalie is planning to open a dance school – and Stewart was “pushed all the way” to become a footballer even if life growing up on Pallister Park was not easy.
“Some of my friends did OK and got jobs and so on but others, well, they got into trouble. Some went to jail,” Downing says. “But it was never like that for me. I was always playing football. My dad was very strict, very firm, and he made sure I turned up, that I stayed away from trouble, and some kids don’t get that in their lives and that’s maybe why they fall by the wayside. But it was the making of me – where I came from, the way I was brought up, the mates I still have from then.
“It was a conscious decision [to steer clear of trouble]. It was drummed into me and I was also lucky that I started to play for Middlesbrough quite early. So there was always something for me whereas for some of the others – they didn’t have that to look forward to. I was training three, four nights a week and playing at the weekends so I didn’t have time to think about other stuff. Stability helps.”
As Downing talks it is easy to see why he reacted so strongly to Rodgers’ criticism and how that reaction has had a positive effect on the winger and on the team. He has fought back at Liverpool, although he is less optimistic about adding to his 34 England caps having been an unused substitute at Euro 2012. Since then he has had no contact with manager Roy Hodgson.
“I don’t think he will call me up, to be honest,” Downing says. “He took me to the Euros on the back of not having a great season and then didn’t play me at all. And I honestly thought: ‘Why am I here?’ The team wasn’t doing great in the games and I thought I could make a difference but it was the same subs every game and I just thought, ‘He’s not going to play me’. Since the Euros he’s not picked me once.”
Downing is far more optimistic about Liverpool who, he feels, are making significant progress under Rodgers. “We haven’t played badly many times this season but we have to be more ruthless,” he says. “We have to be able to win games even if we don’t play well and as the manager says, sometimes you have to win ugly. We know we are a good team, we just have to cut the mistakes out.
“This is a special club, I think, and if we keep the squad as we are and the manager is able to build on that in the summer then I think next season we can be judged because by then the manager has put his foundations in place. Everyone knows how he wants to play and how we will be set up and we will have a right good go.”
And this season? “It has probably been the worst ‘best season’ that I have had,” Downing admits. “I’ve been playing, then not playing and sat in the stands every week – I’m not used to that – and then playing every week. Now the manager says I could play for England again. It’s been a strange season.”