Cult Heroes: Stewart Downing
After a bruising encounter which finished up honours even following an inspired return to action from Fraizer Campbell Sunderland make the short trip down the A19 to Teeside for the FA Cup Fourth Round replay, with the victor set to face Arsenal in the next round. Ahead of the game at the Stadium of Light we profiled the no-nonsense fullback Joe Bolton as part of this here Cult Heroes piece. This time around we profile a slightly more skilful footballer - no offence to Joe of course!
This time around sees the turn of a Teeside lad who had a fleeting spell on Wearside on loan which really helped to kickstart his career - Stewart Downing.Stewart, born in Middlesbrough, was a graduate from the club's youth system, a productive setup which has seen a number of recognisable names including Adam Johnson, Chris Brunt and Downing come through the ranks and go on to establish a career in the game in recent years. The academy's success continues with a number of Boro's first team regulars having made a similar career path including club captain Matthew Bates along with Tony McMahon and Joe Bennett.
Downing made his debut for the Teesiders in April of 2002 but initially struggled to make an impact on the side with Sunderland favourite Bolo Zenden occupying Boro's left flank at the time. Stewart would go on to grab his first senior goal having been given the nod for a League Cup tie against Brentford, a game Middlesbrough comfortably won 4-1.
As is the case with many young footballers a loan spell was on the cards to help gain some first team experience. Here is where Sunderland enters the winger's story. Stewart made the switch in November of 2003 joining Mick McCarthy's Sunderland side who had responded well to the following season's relegation from the Premier League and the subsequent sale of a number of key players.
The loan spell couldn't have worked out better for both clubs and of course Downing himself. With no upheaval to unfamiliar surroundings Stewart was able to hit the ground running and made an instant impact on Wearside breathing new life and excitement into our left wing and was clearly head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch at that level. The youngster delighted the Sunderland fans with his old fashioned, direct and pacey wing play during all too brief spell over the Festive period.
Stewart instantly clicked with another fan favourite, Julio Arca, and the pair terrorised opposition defences for the seven games that Downing figured in for the Black Cats. The winger also had an eye for goal during his stint with the club finding the back of the net an impressive three times in that short-lived period. The Sunderland fans began to dream that the club may, by some miracle, be able to tempt the tricky winger to the club with the promise of first team football. Alas our hopes for a transfer never really stood a chance of coming to fruition as the Teesider's form and an injury crisis at the Riverside conspired to Boro recalling their man.
Since then Downing's career has been on the up, his spell on Wearside proving to be the launchpad that would see the winger make a name for himself on the grandest stage, a proving ground of sorts if you will. Downing would go on to assist Boro to the 2006 UEFA Cup Final, including a standout performance in the Semi-Final where he assisted with three of his side's goals in a 4-2 win over Steaua Bucharest. Relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2008/09 season saw Stewart's time with his boyhood club come to an end as a certain Martin O'Neill paid an initial £10m to bring the winger to Aston Villa.
Downing spent two years at Villa Park, with his second season showcasing some of his best form to date, making forty-four appearances and scoring eight goals in all competitions. With Ashley Young on the opposite flank Villa had an enviable attacking threat from wide positions. The winger's form attracted interest from Merseyside but boss McLeish was adamant that his England International was not for sale. Naturally Downing joined Liverpool soon after in a deal worth around £20m and made his debut in the 1-1 draw against SAFC on the opening day of this season.
Whilst Downing's stay with Sunderland was nothing more than a brief affair his impact on the 2003/04 season will be fondly remembered on Wearside. Stewart offered an attacking outlet alongside Julio Arca on the left-hand-side that fans had not seen since the days of Alan Johnston and Michael Gray and brought about fevered hopes and dreams that we may have been able to tempt him with a full time move. Jeff Whitley aside the campaign was an exciting one and Downing certainly played his part.