All Good Things: Stewart Downing’s Final Boro Season
A chilly Tuesday evening in Ipswich, 2nd October 2018. Merely fifteen minutes after kick-off, the Tractor Boys are already 1-0 down to Tony Pulis’ high-flying Middlesbrough side, who have lost only once in the previous ten games. Stewart Downing, Middlesbrough’s greatest academy product, receives the ball on the right-hand side and carries it towards the penalty spot. The defenders oblige him and appear content to back off all the way to the goalmouth. A few light shoulder feints to the left, and Downing chances a mild shot at the far corner. It deflects into the net off a scrambling Ipswich defender. He jogs away with arms outstretched, a subdued celebration for a simple goal. There is an undeniable air of the anti-climactic about this, Downing’s final goal in the red shirt of Middlesbrough.
Despite strong links away after 2017’s Premier League relegation, Downing signed a two-year deal and cemented a starting place under Pulis. He accrued a decent haul of three goals and seven assists the following season, but Downing was still on the receiving end of well-documented fan opprobrium. Friction with past managers, accusations of a bad attitude, and perhaps some inflated supporter expectation had cast a shadow on his second stint at Boro. With his contract expiring in summer 2019 and with parachute payments running dry, question marks were hanging over Downing. Little did Boro fans know at the beginning of the 2018/19 season that Downing’s contract would become one of the campaign’s main narratives.
The first few months of 2018/19 saw Downing in good form, assisting Britt Assombalonga away at Bristol City, and scoring against Sheffield United and Ipswich. During this spell, the high watermark of a disappointing season, Downing was a positive presence on the pitch and in the dressing room. As ever, he had critics, particularly when goals and assists became scarce. Boro’s form tailed off in December, losing to Aston Villa, QPR, and Wednesday, pulling the club to fifth. Pulis steadied the ship by doing the double over Ipswich, with Downing starting but coming off midway through the second half. It was the last time for months that Downing would start for Boro.
In an infamous twist, it was revealed that Downing was being deliberately prevented from starting matches. A one-year extension clause in his contract, meaning another year of high wages that the club couldn’t afford, would be triggered if he started another game. The order to restrict Downing to impact-sub appearances, coming directly from chairman Steve Gibson, was widely reported. Pulis leapt to Downing’s defence, praising his attitude but conceding that it was an issue that needed to be resolved between the player and the higher-ups. “It’s a situation that is not good for anybody,” he told the press diplomatically. For the club, it was an unwanted declaration of declining fortunes; for Pulis, it was a frustrating spanner in the works that disturbed his side tactically and emotionally; for Downing, it was a thoroughly humiliating experience. Boro supporters, no matter their feelings on the divisive veteran, felt shared grief at the state of the club behind the scenes, with backroom politicking and book-balancing making a public victim of a club legend.
Downing’s appearances were limited to the final half-hour, allowing him insufficient time to affect proceedings, usually slotting into the confused, mish-mashed system that defined the latter Pulis months. He was an unused substitute for Boro’s crucial clashes against top-six rivals West Brom and Leeds. Next came the dreadful March and April run that saw six straight defeats, the first two again seeing Downing kept to the bench. There was an alarming lack of movement on the contract situation, and it seemed that Boro fans would never see Downing in a starting eleven again.
Days before the April home match against Bristol, it was circulated that Downing had signed a waiver that freed the club from fulfilling the offending clause, allowing him to start matches again. Despite this good news, Boro’s continuing slide had thrown their playoff hopes into jeopardy, dropping from fifth to eighth after losing to the Robins 1-0. Downing’s reintroduction did little to buoy a team low on confidence and ideas. Boro limped towards a seventh-place finish, with Downing making brief cameos in the final five matches. The waiver was seemingly a case of ‘too little, too late’ – if Downing was allowed to continue starting games, would Boro’s season have gone off the rails so emphatically? It’s difficult to say, but the tension and disruption it caused for such a prolonged period can hardly have helped.
Remarkably, the scandal did not end there. When he appeared on Mark Schwarzer’s Two Sharp Reds podcast in 2020, Downing alleged that a “reduced contract” in the summer was offered as part of the deal to bypass the extension clause. And yet when the season concluded, a baffled and hurt Downing was told to look for a new club. At the time, PR-savvy Downing told The Northern Echo that the decision to leave was amicable, after a discussion with brother-in-law and incoming boss Jonathan Woodgate. When Schwarzer’s own bad experience is taken into account, it reflects very poorly on the board-level management of the club. '
As for Downing, he joined former Boro captain and manager Tony Mowbray at Blackburn, turning in another season of solid performances that saw three goals and eight assists in all competitions. He was pushing 35, but Downing still had it.
Stewart Downing will be talked about by Boro fans for decades to come. The fact that a local lad, an academy graduate, who played exciting football and had a hand in Middlesbrough’s greatest triumphs, is regarded with such polarity of opinion is fascinating. Downing’s Boro farewell was not marred because he wasn’t the same player anymore. Instead, he fell foul of bad decisions taken in the boardroom, and gung-ho approaches to contracts that were as excessive as they were short-sighted. The club was protecting itself from further harm when the intervention against Downing was made in January 2019; perhaps this was simply one of many tough decisions it takes to run a football club. Even still, it’s a tragedy that a situation where a club icon could be treated so disposably happened in the first place.