Downing's decision to stay gives Boro boost

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The Independent Football

Stewart Downing yesterday signed a new five-year contract at Middlesbrough, ending months of speculation about a move to Tottenham Hotspur, and there is an expectation on Teesside that the hugely impressive young centre-half David Wheater will follow suit shortly.

With Boro having just broken their transfer record in bringing Afonso Alves from Heerenveen for £12.5m, Downing's signature after protracted negotiations is another sign that Gareth Southgate's squad is coming together at a time when Boro are pulling away from the relegation zone and face a fifth round FA Cup tie at Sheffield United tomorrow.

Southgate said that Downing's decision to remain at his hometown club "shows others inside the dressing-room that we look after our own" and he has given Downing the message that this is a springboard back into the England squad. Downing was picked in Fabio Capello's initial 30-man squad to face Switzerland at Wembley but was among the seven players to miss out when the squad was whittled down.

"It's testimony to the fact that Stewart believes the club is heading in the right direction and he enjoys his football here," Southgate said. "Now he can just focus on his football and we can focus on improving him even more and getting him back in that England squad."

Downing, 24, said that the signing of Alves, soon after Jonathan Woodgate had left citing Boro's "lack of ambition" displayed the contrary and Southgate added of his talented winger: "If we'd lost one of our major supply lines, it would have been a futile exercise to bring in a striker. Stewart has so much ahead of him. Belief and confidence is a lot of it and he now feels wanted. We've shown we have that belief and backing it up with a contract underlines that."

On Wheater, Southgate said: "We have had some very positive discussions with David and his family. There are still one or two things to negotiate, but I must say, talking to David's family and his advisers was very refreshing. It was one of the rare meetings that you come out of with your faith restored in football and footballers' parents."

Southgate's new Sheffield United counterpart Kevin Blackwell, meanwhile, has revealed he was so eager to return to Bramall Lane he does not even know what he is to be paid over the next few months.

Blackwell has taken on the role of Blades manager until the end of the season following Bryan Robson's exit on Thursday. Robson departed after nine months at the helm, and although he was offered an "upstairs" role as director of football, he felt it was in his best interests to walk away. On the back of a run of just one win from 10 matches in the Championship, Robson had lost the support of the fans.

It means Blackwell is back at the club he quit just under four years ago to manage Leeds, and after serving as former manager Neil Warnock's assistant for a number of seasons.

But such has been the rapid turnaround at Bramall Lane, and ahead of tomorrow's Cup tie, Blackwell has not even considered his own personal well-being. "I've not sat down with [club chairman] Terry Robinson or [plc chairman] Kevin McCabe and discussed how long my tenure at the football club will be," Blackwell said. "I just wanted to get up here and deal with the players. I've not even bothered talking about wages or where I'm going to live or anything like that.

"But I'm more than happy here, and I'm sure they'll look after me in some respect somewhere down the line. This is a club that's going places and without a doubt it could easily return to the Premier League."

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