Stewart Downing

Earlier this month Stewart Downing called time on his glittering playing career.

The best Academy product Boro have ever produced enjoyed a stunning 20-year-career, playing for his hometown club, Aston Villa, Liverpool, West Ham, Blackburn, and winning 35 England caps.

Those who know Downing and who have been alongside him in his career tell of a "phenomenal" player but also a humble, brilliant bloke, never changed by his success.

Dominic Shaw speaks to family, friends, coaches and teammates to find out all about Stewart Downing.

Stewart Downing Snr

"I used to tan him all over, when he at Marton, I'd tan him from Pally Park in rain or snow."

Stewart Downing Snr has turned the clock back to where it all began, taking his son to training on the back of his bike when he was a kid.

"Some of the others would turn up in their BMWs or whatever, I used to say to our Stewy, 'you'll have one of them one day, son'. But you have to work hard'."

And he did.

"When our Stewart was 12, he had two jobs. He had a paper round and I got him a job in the social club glass collecting," says Stewy Snr warming to the task of turning back the years.

"I'm one of 10 and that's what was drummed into us, to work. We all had jobs at a weekend when we were at school. All my kids have always worked."

From a very young age, though, just four years old, in fact, Stewy Snr knew his son was different. Special. Gifted. And he grew up on a diet of football.

"He was always with me, and we were always at games. Pub games on Ormesby Road, we'd pass a game at Keldholme School and stop to watch. Wherever there was a game, I was there, me and him. Football, that's all he's ever known.

"Right from the start he had that brilliant left foot. I used to teach him to use his right. I'd put a working boot on his left foot and he'd kick the ball against the garage with his right.

"He worked so hard on that right foot. I always remember a goal he scored against Sunderland with his right, he came inside and let it go.

"I remember at the Riverside once, we played Man United and Giggs was shouting to Scholes, 'get him on the right foot he's got no right foot'. Stewy cut inside, put it in the box with his right and Viduka scored."

Manchester United were one of the clubs in for Downing when he was a kid but Stewart Snr had given Ron Bone his word that his son would sign for Boro - more on that later.

"Man Utd were chasing him, loads of clubs were. I always said to him, play for your hometown club, and if you're that good they'll come back in for you, and they did, you only have to look at his career.

"Our Stewart always wanted to play for his hometown club."

In Downing's brilliant career for club and country, Stewart Snr hardly missed a game. He'd go to Boro, Aston Villa, Liverpool, West Ham and Blackburn home and away.

His proudest moment?

"I've been so proud of everything, but it has to be England. Playing for your country. I've travelled all over the world watching our Stewart."

And it all started on the back of that mountain bike. Where's the bike now?

"I've still got it," beams Stewart Snr.

Stewart Downing with dad, Stewart Snr in 2005

Ron Bone

It was a Boro Under-16 player, Charlie Agiadis, who first mentioned the name of Stewart Downing to Ron Bone.

Downing was just nine at the time and playing for Marton, so Bone, on the recommendation, went along to watch, as did fellow Boro scout Keith Noble.

Both were blown away by what they saw.

"We knew we had something special for a nine -year-old: pace, the ability to strike a ball, he was just a wonderful talent," recalls Bone.

"He was a thoroughbred. He was a natural athlete with a great left foot. He just stood out."

Downing was too young to sign at the time, but his dad gave Bone his word that when he was 14 he'd join Boro, despite interest from Manchester United, Leeds, Chelsea and a host of other clubs.

"He was going all over the place but his dad always said to me, 'Ron, when he's 14 he'll sign for Boro'. Right from the start his dad struck me as being very genuine so I was never worried we'd lose him. And he was true to his word."

Boro's Stewart Downing replaces Sean Wright-Phillips to make his England debut

What Bone soon discovered when Downing joined Boro was that the youngster boasted impressive qualities and characteristics off the pitch as well as on it.

"I remember once we were going to Northern Ireland to play but Stewy broke his arm beforehand so couldn't play," he says.

"But he asked if he could still come, which was a great sign, and he was just great around the place. I remember thinking then, what a top end kid, what a great kid.

"That's the way he's always been. It was obvious he had the characteristics of a model professional as well as a top player."

Is Downing the best player Bone ever discovered and signed for Boro?

"Alan Moore was a special talent but Alan had problems with injuries. With all that Stewy has achieved in the game, he has to be the best."

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Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins is in the unique position of having coached Stewart Downing when he was a nine-year-old and again when he was an established Premier League regular and England international.

"The best way I can describe Stewart Downing....he was a Rolls Royce," says Jenkins.

Now in a key recruitment role at Premier League Burnley, Teessider Jenkins was a long-time and hugely respected coach at Boro, working with the Academy, leading the Under-23s and going on to work with the first team in the 2016/17 top flight season.

Downing was back at Boro for a second spell then having made 35 England appearances in a glittering career that saw the winger enjoy spells at Aston Villa, Liverpool and West Ham.

And Jenkins remembers only too well how it all started.

"I'd just started at Middlesbrough, we were still training at Ayresome Park in the gym upstairs where the centre of excellence was held," the Teessider explains.

"I always remember Ron (Bone) saying to me 'Jenks, just have a look at this kid, he's nine-year-old and he's going to be a superstar'. I remember saying 'awe Ron, he's nine years old, you can't be saying that'. But after that first session you just knew he had something special."

What was so special about him?

"It was the way he handled the football, the way that the football and him had a special relationship, even at nine years old," explains Jenkins.

"He could manipulate the football, he was two footed, even at that age. He had a special relationship with the ball, and that continued as he got older and as he developed."

For Jenkins then, his role as a coach wasn't necessarily to teach Downing but to "nurture" his talent.

"You're there as a support mechanism, you're almost guiding them without taking away any of the fantastic qualities," he says.

"That innate ability. Stewart had that."

But talent obviously only takes you so far.

"What Stewart also had was a desperate need to be a professional footballer. And Stewart, his dad, did everything he could to support him, biking him down to training. It was unbelievable commitment to want to be a professional footballer. Thankfully we all saw the benefit of that as fans."

Stewart Downing on the ball for Middlesbrough in 2002

What Jenkins saw as Downing progressed was not just an exceptional footballer but someone who led by example.

"He was the first of a new era at Boro really, that's how I would describe it," he says.

"As a coach you take pride, you worked with the player, you've had some influence along with everyone else at the club. More importantly it's from that human perspective. There's a human being who's a really good lad, who's come through the system. From a local perspective, I am a Middlesbrough lad and a fan, seeing someone like that, he's almost a beacon of light for the club and there for his teammates to aspire to get to where he was. He was an inspiration.

"You look at the comments from former players and players we had in our system, they all looked up to Stewy Downing. We had some good players but they all looked at Stewart as the one to emulate. As a member of staff it's just fantastic to have someone like that for players to look up to.

"You look at what Stewy has achieved, he is without question the most successful and decorated academy player. Middlesbrough fans and the people of Middlesbrough should really appreciate what we actually had. I think at the time there was a mixed opinion on Stewart, which is sad really, because he's the most decorated player to come out of the system. We should be proud of him, proud of the fact he's from Middlesbrough and proud of the fact he came through the club's academy system.

"We still speak regularly and keep in touch with each other. He's somebody I'm proud to call a friend and proud to have worked with. We have good football discussions and I'm sure Stewart will benefit a football club in some capacity because of his experience and the managers and players he's worked for. We as a football industry should have someone like Stewy Downing in it."

Andrew Taylor

When Stewart Downing moved from Liverpool's left flank to the right, Andrew Taylor knew he was going to have his hands full.

It's the 2012 League Cup final: Liverpool vs Cardiff City, an intriguing sub-plot, to those on Teesside anyway, was Downing vs Taylor. It wasn't just a clash of two former teammates but two players who knew each other's game inside out.

Liverpool came out on top, but only after a penalty shoot-out. Brilliant Downing was named Man of the Match.

"I'll take some credit for that," laughs Taylor.

It wasn't as though Taylor needed any reminding as to how good Downing was, for the Hartlepool-born defender knew the winger's game better than most having played with him on the left flank at Boro for a number of years.

"When people ask me who is the best I've played with, Stewy is always up there. He was phenomenal," says Taylor, now loan manager at Leeds United.

"For a young player coming through, for me he was perfect because he'd help me defensively, which not many people give him credit for, and then I could just give him the ball and he'd do his thing. He was great. He was a fantastic help for me in my career, for sure.

"He never, or very rarely, left his full back isolated. He was very much an old school winger, he'd get back and double up, then he'd get forward and do his thing. He was great. He never moaned, never shied away from the hard work, he was a proper team player even though he was the best player.

"You look at the money that flies around now, you can't even imagine the type of money he'd command if he was at his best now. He had the lot. His left foot was a joke! He could use his right if he needed, he was fit as a lop, he was quick, his general all-round play was outstanding. He'd be worth god knows how much now."

Stewart Downing of Middlesbrough is tackled by Andrew Taylor when Boro played Reading in 2016

Taylor and Downing have been mates for more than two decades.

"He was the one we all looked up to when we were kids," says the former left-back.

"Even when we weren't full time, at Under-14s or 15s, Stewy Downing was the one everyone talked about. He got into the first team and everyone looked at Stewy and thought, 'yeah, that's where we're aiming'. He made us all aim for the stars, for the top. He inspired all of us."

Taylor continues: "He's always just been one of the lads. Back then when we were breaking through, he was just one of us. Whether or not internally he knew how good he was, he never made that apparent or played up to that. He was one of the lads, he made everyone feel welcome, everyone feel part of it.

"And now, he's the same Stewy Downing he was when he was 16. That's credit to his family, his mam and dad, his mates. He's just a typical Middlesbrough lad, very humble, very down to earth, he's always got time for people, you never hear anyone speak bad of him."

Ben Gibson

Ben Gibson was 16, had just turned full-time as a Boro scholar but he was injured.

The injury resulted in long days at Rockliffe, by the time he'd done his rehab for the day and had his treatment he was getting finished hours after his Academy teammates had left. And that presented Gibson with a slight problem, how to get home.

"I used to have to wait until Mark Proctor finished, but sometimes he wouldn't get done until eight, and I'd been there all day," he explains.

"Anyway, Stewy was injured at the same time. Middlesbrough had just been relegated, he had a knee injury."

You probably know where this is going now.

"Stewy somehow found out I was struggling for lifts, so because he was finishing at the same time and I was living in Nunthorpe, he started taking me in and home every day.

"Honestly, I was starstruck. I remember sitting in his Range Rover, he had his deep house music on, he had his leather seats, he was proper sound. Every day I just couldn't wait to get back in the car.

"At first I was nervous, then I was just a chatter box and I'd ask him a million questions. He had all the time in the world, he never once got agitated or irritated. He even invited me round for a barbecue when he had his family round, that's when I first met Jonathan Woodgate. These people are my heroes, it was just madness.

"Honestly, I would be buzzing to get in the car every day. He would text me saying 'what time do you want me to get you tomorrow'. I used to wait for his text every night, I'd probably go and tell my mam, 'Stewy has just text me!'. All because he knew I'd have to wait and get home dead late.

"That just sums him up really, not many professional footballers would go out of their way for a kid like that, not someone of Stewy's level."

Six years or so later and the car school was reunited when Downing rejoined Boro. Gibson was a first team regular by this point. And they had company on the A66, for Woodgate would also jump in and share lifts.

"Woody was injured quite a lot that year, but quite often the three of us would drive in together as a little car school.

"When Stewy signed and Woody re-signed the squad was in Marbella. I'd had an Under-21 tournament so had an extended summer and was in Portugal, but I was thinking I can't wait to get back off holiday here.

"Stewy, what a signing that was. I couldn't wait to get to Marbella and link up with them. I just had a good feeling about that year, and obviously it was unbelievable, we got promoted.

"It was class. And for a young lad, knocking about with them two, it was something else, every day was a learning curve."

Gibson was a kid and a season ticket holder in the stands when Downing first burst into the team.

"He made everyone believe," says the Norwich defender.

"He was the first one in that generation, and he achieved pretty much the dream career - he played for his hometown club twice and got to cup finals and won promotion, he played for one of the biggest clubs in the world, he represented England, he was a young lad going away to World Cups shoulder to shoulder with David Beckham and global superstars.

"Obviously I've got to know him and the guy he is makes it even better because he's just a humble, normal good person."

Stewart Downing, Grant Leadbitter and Ben Gibson celebrate knocking Manchester United out of the Capital One Cup

Gibson continues: "I was lucky enough to play with him and he was unreal.

"It's funny because people will never know the true story with Stewy really. Stewy has never got the credit he deserves, he should have a statue outside the stadium. Where he's come from, what he's done.

"Stewy got the blame for Aitor walking out, it was nothing to do with Stewy. Stewy has been unbelievable for Midlesbrough Football Club. He was nothing but a good servant, he made the club a lot of money when they sold him and made the club a lot of money again getting out of the league.

"He did nothing but give his all for the team, the club and wore the badge with pride.

"As a player, he was class. The things he could do, left and right foot and make it look so easy. It just came to him so naturally but at the same time he worked his nuts off.

"I'm delighted for him with the career he's had. He deserves to enjoy himself in his palace in Ibiza for a bit, but I know he'll stay in the game. He's got too much knowledge and experience not to."

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Jonathan Woodgate

Jonathan Woodgate remembers the first time he clapped eyes on Stewart Downing.

"I was at Leeds and I went to watch a Leeds vs Boro FA Youth Cup game," the former Boro defender and manager recalls.

"I went to watch with Eddie Gray and he was like, 'oh my God, who is this kid?'. It was Stewy. He couldn't believe how good he was. I remember telling Stewy a few years later.

"He looked a level above. He just had so much time on the ball.

"Eddie absolutely loved him. He was a winger himself and he loved what Stewy was about. I'm sure Leeds tried to get Stewy at some point."

Woodgate remembers the buzz about Downing that quickly spread through the game as he was coming through the ranks at Boro.

Woodgate would not only later become a teammate of Downing's, but part of the family.

Is he proud of what Downing has achieved in the game?

"Too right I am," he replies.

"Obviously I'm part of the family. But to be honest, I like to see anyone from Middlesbrough doing well. I love to see young kids coming through the ranks at Boro. And Stewy led the way for so many. Morrison, Wheater, Cattermole, McMahon, Bates - he gave them all belief.

"Boro should get him back in the Academy now. Imagine what it would be like for young players to have Stewy Downing taking their sessions, he's been there and done it all. Get him back in at the club, where he's a legend.

"The thing with Stewy as a player, he didn't just have all the ability in the world but he worked his bollocks off as well! There was never any drama with him, he just got on with it. He was a top pro and he's a really good guy."

When Woodgate was in charge of Bournemouth last year, he got a call from Harry Redknapp one night.

"Harry rang me, he was watching a Blackburn game, and he said to me, 'I'm watching Stewy Downing here, he has a habit of passing the ball to someone wearing the same shirt, doesn't he'. He said, 'he just doesn't give the ball away!'."

Source : https://www.gazettelive.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/stewart-downing-told-family-friends-21306122

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