"Stewart, Stewart Downing. Stewart Downing on the wing." That is the current favourite chant of Middlesbrough fans, and they expect all England supporters to be singing along come the next World Cup finals in 2006. Left-midfielder Downing is already an established Under-21 player, but there is a growing clamour for an impressed Sven Goran Eriksson to name him next Saturday in his senior squad for the friendly against Spain on 17 November.
Middlesbrough, fifth in the Premiership going into the weekend, are yet to lose a game in which Downing has started this season, a statistic which will be tested further when they host fourth-placed Bolton today.
It will probably help Downing's international ambitions that Eriksson's England assist-ant, Steve McClaren, also happens to be the manager at Boro. Middlesbrough's latest favourite son might not have been playing were it not for a career-threatening injury which has put the Spaniard Gaizka Mendieta out for at least the rest of the season. Mendieta's misfortune and Downing's talent forced McClaren's hand, prompting him to play Downing on the left, bring Bolo Zenden into the middle with George Boateng and put Arsenal legend Ray Parlour out to his best position, wide on the right.
Downing has caught the eye with classy goals against Manchester United, Ports-mouth and in Europe, but there is more to his case than a few casual television fans jumping on a popular bandwagon. The experts feel Downing is the genuine article. His fellow North-east native Chris Waddle, possibly England's last world-class naturally left-sided midfielder, has been following Downing's career for years, and saw him run the show in Thursday's comprehensive Uefa Cup win over Lazio.
Waddle, who won 62 England caps, firmly believes in Downing, who is a versatile player rather than a touchline hugger. Waddle said: "England are looking for someone on the left, and if Stewart keeps playing the way he did here against Lazio, he'll force his way in by public demand. Potentially, he's a godsend for Sven. He's a natural left-footer who would give us balance, and I say, 'Get him in now'. I think Sven will be guided by McClaren, because he sees the lad day in, day out and has seen him blossom."
Downing made his Premiership debut for Middlesbrough in April 2002 before starring on loan at Sunderland last season. Waddle believes Downing could even make a similar impact for England as that made by Wayne Rooney.
"Stewart's a big, exciting prospect and our best option for the future in that left position," Waddle added. "Wayne Rooney fitted in. It's not about age, and I don't think Stewart would let them down. He's forced his way into the Middlesbrough team and he's just played against Lazio's Massimo Oddo, who has played 16 times for Italy - and he's skinned him.
"Stewart's obviously a different type of player to Rooney, but like him he gets people off their seats when he picks the ball up, and it's nice to see. He's got a tremendous turn of pace, a lovely left foot, he's a great crosser on the run, has a shot on him, and is good at set-pieces. If Bolton were watching, they'll say, 'Let's cut the line off to him - don't let him have the ball'.
"Wayne Bridge and Ashley Cole are capable of working in tandem down the left for England, but it's good to see someone like Stewart, who's a natural - that's what it's all about. I saw him playing for Middlesbrough's Academy when he was about 16, at Sheffield Wednesday, and he stuck out like a sore thumb.
"He doesn't look overawed. He's playing with big-reputation players in Hasselbaink and Viduka, and he seems to revel in it. If he enjoys playing with them, I'm sure he'd enjoy playing with the likes of Owen and Beckham."
McClaren ensures Downing does his talking on the pitch, and asked him not to face the press on Thursday night. But his talent might take McClaren's decision to keep him under wraps out of his hands if Middlesbrough's homegrown midfielder soon fulfils his potential to become an international regular.
The Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer backs Waddle's view, and added: "Stewart is a tremendous talent. His confidence is sky-high and it shows on the pitch. England would be another progression for him. People said Wayne Rooney wasn't ready - and look what happened to him."Reuse content