It’s mid-July in the summer transfer window of 2011. England international Stewart Downing has just come off the back of a superb Barclays Premier League season, in which he played all 38 games for Aston Villa, notching up seven goals and nine assists in the process. A model of form and consistency, a £20million transfer to Liverpool beckoned in a move that seemed overpriced, but perhaps sure to pay dividends.
What a difference a year makes. Over twelve months on, the fate and fortunes of both player and club have taken several tumultuous bumps along the way. A term of bludgeoning underachievement and extraordinary mediocrity has seen Brendan Rodgers ushered in to start a new era. But while the club look to be turning the page, it is Downing that seems to be stuck in the last chapter.
But despite the woes that the ex-Middlesbrough man is enduring and the seemingly endless amount of negative press that he receives, there’s still the capacity to breathe new life into his faltering Anfield dream. It’s time for Downing to go back to basics and rediscover the kind of form that saw him build his reputation at Villa Park.
As the book was closed on the short-lived second coming of Kenny Dalglish in Merseyside, there seemed to be several defining elements that have come to serve as some kind of motif. The image of Dalglish standing with a brooding Andy Carroll after divulging £35million particularly sticks out, as does the now unsavory incident with the Luis Suarez t-shirts of support. But perhaps the one with the most longetivity, has been the enduring image of Downing himself.
Nobody should ever read too much into statistics, but with Downing, the temptations have always seemed a little too much to resist. His figures for the Premier League season 2011-12 read: played 36, scored zero, assisted zero. Even though Downing notched up a couple of goals in the FA Cup, was denied by the post and bar on more than one occasion and still grafted hard for his side, the stats tell a very damning story indeed. For some, the abysmal end product from such an overinflated acquisition represents a fitting tribute to all that’s been wrong on Anfield over the last two years.
And it’s been a hard stigma to shake. As last season rumbled on, it felt as if his lack of attributable contribution to the team became a sinister stick to hit him with and as such, both his game and his confidence seemed to go to pieces. Liverpool fans could atone for his difficult period of form, but what did become hard to accept, was his inability to even harness the bread and butter of his game. Despite anything else, supporters expected Downing to produce his trademark consistent delivery, even if other parts of his game weren’t all there. At times, he struggled even to produce that.
But as the Fenway Sports Group called time on Dalglish’s reign as manager, you could have mistaken Downing for thinking that a fresh direction of management could bring him a change of fortunes. Yet the appointment of Brendan Rodgers has looked ominous for his prospects.
The Ulsterman’s preferred style of play in his 4-3-3 set-up doesn’t particularly cater for a traditional winger in the mould of a Downing. They must have more of a cutting edge to their game – a higher level of craft, a real sense of tactical awareness and an unremitting work rate. So far this term, Rodgers has preferred the duo of Fabio Borini and the excellent Raheem Sterling as his widemen and as the side have began to forge their own identity, Downing has been left in the cold.
Worse more, after a couple of frustrating appearences against West Brom in the Capital One Cup and Young Boys in the Europa League, Downing has come in for a degree of critique from his new manager.
Speaking last week, Rodgers warned his winger that he must work harder if he wants to remain a Liverpool player:
“The big challenge for him now is that commitment to the cause to fight, because he has the qualities. He has a wonderful left foot but what is important is that it is more than talent.
“Talent alone is not enough. You have to work hard, you have to fight for the shirt. We have seen that in a number of the young players and if you don’t do that then longer-term you won’t be here. It is as simple as that really.”
Rodgers comments represent perhaps the first public wake-up call to his faltering winger. The ex-Swansea man isn’t afraid to give younger players who he feels are talented enough and hungry enough, the opportunity to play under his stewardship. The message was loud and clear and it’s now or never for Downing if he wants to give it a go.
But there is still a chance to turn his fortunes around and Rodgers seemingly offered an olive branch to Downing in his concession that he’d be willing to give him a chance at left-back. And if he does, it’s one that the ex-Boro man has to seize with both hands.
Because the basics of the game, the talents on which his success have been built around, can still be an asset to this team. That trademark swinging delivery from the left and his cultured left foot can do damage from anywhere on the pitch and a switch to full-back wouldn’t change it. He is disciplined enough to do it, as Rodgers pointed to during his stint there in Middlesbrough’s 2006 Uefa cup run. A renewed exhibition of his talents could see him persuade Rodgers to even reinstate him higher up the pitch.
But he has to make his move now. Liverpool are metamorphosing at rate of knots now under Rodgers and he won’t have any qualms about leaving Downing behind if he has to. Life has been tough for him in his first season and the expectation has been something he’s never previously experienced. But if he gets his chance, it’s time to go back to basics and step up to the plate. If not, he could be staring at a January exit.
Does Downing have a future at Anfield? Follow @samuel_antrobus on Twitter and let me know if Rodgers is right to contemplate a move to full-back for the ex-Middlesbrough man.