Stewart Downing is 30 years old, has played more than 350 Premier League matches and made his England debut almost a decade ago. Yet when he arrived at St George’s Park this week to join up with Roy Hodgson’s England squad, he felt more butterflies than he did as a young Middlesbrough winger making his international debut.
After more than two years out of the England picture, it was something he had simply not anticipated. “I felt more nervous turning up for this one,” he reflected. “I’ve not played with a lot of the lads, it’s a new set-up and I’ve been out of it for a long time. But I’m excited as well because I didn’t expect to get the call.”
Downing’s return is reward for his bright start to the season with upwardly mobile West Ham and revives an England career he had thought over. “I did think it had gone,” said a player who earned the last of his 34 caps against Norway in May 2012. “I played Roy’s first game, went to the Euros, didn’t play at all and after that I wasn’t picked for two and a half years. With the younger players coming through, I thought Roy would go in that direction.”
He confessed he is “still finding my way around” St George’s Park and this is not the only thing that has changed since he has been away. “I’ve seen in training a lot of enthusiastic young lads and it’s a totally different squad to what I was used to,” he said. Another difference comes from Hodgson’s drive to promote debate. “Roy is very keen for people to say what they feel. There have been a couple of meetings and there will be a couple more where he wants the lads to voice their opinion about what is going on.”
It was against the Netherlands in February 2005 that Downing made his debut under Sven Goran Eriksson. He had three substitute outings at the 2006 World Cup and is one of four survivors of that campaign, along with Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott. His last encounter with Rooney before Monday was when the England captain hacked him down at Old Trafford in September to earn a red card. “No, I didn’t mention that to him yet!” Downing said with a smile.
His troubles at Liverpool in 2012-13, which contributed to his international exile, are less easy to laugh off. “It does hurt, you want to get picked for your country, but I had bigger things to deal with. I wasn’t in the team at Liverpool, I was in and out. I had a difficult spell there.”
It was during that campaign that Brendan Rodgers started playing him at left-back. A £20m signing by Kenny Dalglish – and man of the match in Liverpool’s 2012 League Cup final win – Downing saw it as a sign he was not in Rodgers’ plans. “I wasn’t happy playing left-back. It is not my natural position but I knew from then it was the time for me to move. I was getting signals other players were coming in, and I am getting used at left-back when I’m a winger. I think you know when the writing it on the wall.”
Ironically, another change of position – the West Ham manager, Sam Allardyce, turning him into a No 10 – has led to his recall. “When I signed for West Ham, Sam told me that if he got the chance he’d want me to play in the middle at times. He said I’d start as a wide man to provide for Andy Carroll but Andy got injured. This season with [Diafra] Sakho and [Enner] Valencia and the pace on the counter-attack, he wanted to make it more so we could break on teams so I’ve played in the three in the middle and off the front man. I’m really enjoying it.
“Wingers tend to move inside as they get older. Ryan Giggs did it. The manager has seen something in my game where he thought I could play there. It has certainly helped my form, the team is playing really well and Roy has noticed that. I think that’s what he has spoken to [Allardyce] about and the certain positions that I’ve been playing in.”
As for where he might play for England, that is not a worry “just as long as I get involved”. He is simply glad to be back.
Rooney: Even if I break Sir Bobby’s record I will not be a legend like him – he won the World Cup
Wayne Rooney believes he will soon replace Bobby Charlton as England’s record scorer but knows that unless the national team win another trophy he will remain in the shadow of the 1966 world champions.
Appointed England captain at the start of this season, Rooney is expected to win his 100th cap in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia at Wembley on Saturday. He will receive a special presentation on the pitch from World Cup winner Charlton, who scored 49 international goals in 106 appearances and tops England’s list ahead of Gary Lineker (48) and Jimmy Greaves (44).
Rooney, who has 43 international goals, says in an interview in Saturday’s match programme that winning a tournament, which England have only ever done in 1966, is what matters most.
“I could sit here saying I’ve got 200 caps and 100 goals for my country, but the ultimate is to win a trophy and that’s what we all want to do,” he says. “That’s why we play football, to win.
“To be England’s greatest ever goalscorer would be massive. The record has stood for so many years, there have been plenty of players who haven’t been able to break it.
“Obviously I’m not going to be as big a legend as Sir Bobby Charlton – he’s won the World Cup with England, so to eclipse that I’d have to win the World Cup.”
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