Downing puts down a World Cup marker

Uefa Cup: Boro's dazzling winger brings McClaren final satisfaction
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The Independent Football

Approaching midnight at the Riverside on Thursday, with the fans still camped outside the main entrance savouring the Middlesbrough version of Mission Impossible II, the question remained: would he be getting the England job, then? Only the gentleman from the Football Association could have provided the answer - and Sven Goran Eriksson had already slipped away into the night.

Still, on the evidence of what the existing national head coach had seen from his seat in the West Stand, it was a fair bet that Stewart Downing would be getting a job of some description with England's World Cup squad. It was, after all, from the West Stand touchline that the outstanding young outside-left had delivered the three crosses that produced goals numbers two, three and four in Middlesbrough's monumental comeback from the dead of a 3-0 aggregate deficit in the second leg of their unforgettable Uefa Cup semi-final against Steaua Bucharest.

The cross for the 89th-minute clincher had "goal" written all over it from the moment it departed Downing's left instep: centimetre-perfect, served on a silver platter for Massimo Maccarone. It remains to be seen whether England will need Steve McClaren beyond this summer, as a head coach or a coaching assistant, but they can ill afford to be without the precision delivery service offered by the Middlesbrough manager's left-winger - in their back-up armoury at least - when they take on the world in Germany in June.

Not that Downing was shouting his worth when he emerged from a side-door at the Riverside late on Thursday night. "It's just my job," the 21-year-old said, shrugging his shoulders in response to the praise being heaped upon them. "It's my job to set up goals, and to score them. I'm just pleased that we won tonight. It didn't matter who set up the goals and who scored them."

It could well matter to Sven, though, when he sits down to select his World Cup party next weekend. "I saw him before the game tonight," Downing said of the man who gave him a taste of international football as a second-half substitute against Holland at Villa Park last year. "He just said, 'Good luck'. I don't know if he was here watching me or supporting the gaffer. If he picks me, he picks me.

"He wants everyone to play in the big games and you can't get any bigger than that one. I just hope that he took notice."

Downing, of course, has a big game in Eindhoven on 10 May - a Uefa Cup final against Sevilla, Frédéric Kanouté, Javier Saviola and all - thanks to a little help from the old friends who helped to haul Boro back from the brink on Thursday. "Some of us were devastated at half-time because we looked dead and buried," he confided, "but a few of the older players said to the younger lads, 'Look, we've got nothing to lose. We go out there and have a go at them'. And we did more than that in the second half. We played them off the park."

They did indeed. And then, after the euphoric celebrations on the pitch at the final whistle, the champagne bottles remained fully corked in the home dressing room. "We've got all this way," Downing said. "We've got to win it now." Such a winning mentality has not just been instilled by McClaren and his backroom staff but also by the senior members of the dressing room at the Riverside - among them George Boateng and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, who are out of contract in the summer.

"Personally, I think all of these players need to be signed up to stay on," Downing asserted. "It's not up to me. It's up to the chairman and the players themselves. But our big players have shown in the cups this season what they can do. We've got to keep hold of players like that."

And a manager like Steve McClaren too, perhaps? "I think the manager's done well because there's been so much speculation," Downing reflected, with the England door seemingly shut on McClaren but perhaps about to ease open again. "He's just got on with it. We won it for him tonight. If he gets the job, good luck to him. If he doesn't, the lads hope he stays here."

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