Downing: I was so close to joining Tottenham

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The old maxim about good things coming to those who wait seems sadly redundant in the instant-riches world of modern football, but for Stewart Downing, it still carries some meaning.

Had things worked out differently for the 27-year-old he might have been wearing Tottenham white rather than Liverpool red when the teams meet at White Hart Lane today.

He is not alone in that. Harry Redknapp is today reacquainted with not just one that got away but a full trio, given the presence alongside Downing in Liverpool's squad of Charlie Adam, subject of a failed deadline-day bid in January, and Craig Bellamy, a longstanding target of the Tottenham manager.

Football is full of what-might-have-beens yet in Downing's case, any frustration the England winger once felt at missing out on a move to Tottenham has given way to satisfaction. ''When you look at the bigger picture it's worked out quite well for me,'' said the former Middlesbrough player, reviewing the trail of events that led him to Anfield in July.

Downing first learned of Tottenham's interest in summer 2008, before Redknapp's arrival in north London, but remained at the Riverside, he explained, after receiving assurances of fresh investment in the Boro squad. By January 2009, with Redknapp now installed at Spurs and the Teessiders fighting a losing relegation battle, Tottenham came calling again.

''I got frustrated because we were struggling and I thought I'd missed an opportunity. I didn't really put a transfer request in but went in to express my feelings to [the Boro chairman] Steve Gibson, that if another opportunity came to move to a big club, I'd like to do it.

''Spurs came back in the January window but I didn't force it,'' added Downing, who made more than 200 appearances for Boro. Gibson did not want to sell and so the winger agreed to stay until the summer. By then, Downing had a foot fracture and, as Tottenham waited, Aston Villa stepped in with a £12m bid.

''Steve Gibson rang me and said he'd give me permission to go. I just felt it was the right time. Because I was injured, I think Spurs were maybe thinking they'd wait until the August but I couldn't take that risk. The big thing for me was Martin O'Neill pushed it really hard,'' revealed Downing, who did not make his Villa debut until three months into the campaign.

Downing was swayed by O'Neill – "a top man" – and said: "I'm glad I spoke to O'Neill and I'm happy I went to Villa because it's a great football club and he was really good to me." Two years on, Downing is working under another inspirational figure in Dalglish. "He has a bit of an aura about him. I think he's bigger than all the players here put together."

If eyebrows were raised in some quarters by the estimated £20m fee for a player who has never been an England regular, Downing's "media profile" is no concern to Dalglish, who was only interested in his ability to beat a man and the quality of his left-foot crosses. Downing arrived at Anfield having won Villa's Player of the Year prize for 2010-11 – after seven League goals and nine assists – and his encouraging start with Liverpool had a knock-on effect when he set up Ashley Young's England winner against Wales this month.

"He is a very genuine boy, a decent boy, he has got a bit of ability and pace – we needed somebody who could play wide but also play very well," said Dalglish.

The Scot's search for width should surprise no one who recalls John Barnes' exploits for his great 1988 Liverpool team or the significant roles played by Stuart Ripley, another Boro boy, and Jason Wilcox in supplying Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton in Dalglish's 1995 title-winning Blackburn side.

His other new wide man, Bellamy, has a rather different profile than Downing but Dalglish – who could finally have Steven Gerrard available again today – is delighted with the appetite of the Welsh attacker, who made his second Liverpool debut as a substitute at Stoke last weekend.

''You hear other people's opinion about certain players but you form your own,'' said the manager who had ''looked at'' Bellamy throughout a career featuring stops at all his own former clubs – Newcastle, Celtic, Blackburn and Liverpool. ''I don't think people realise how much he wants success.''

Redknapp will be hoping the ones that got away do not come back to haunt him.