Middlesbrough 5 Bolton Wanderers 1: Bolton cannot bear Downing's crosses

Winger dismantles Wanderers' vaunted defence and stakes claim to England's left side
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The Independent Football

Stewart Downing is "hoping to be selected" for England's friendly international against Spain next month. On this conclusive evidence, his former Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, cannot afford to be without the most exciting left-sided midfielder English football has produced in a decade.

The 22-year-old was the subject of widespread criticism both during and immediately after last summer's World Cup finals with the harshest of his many critics insisting there should be no future at the highest level for a player still learning his Premiership trade. Yet Downing draws on the experience of Germany as a pivotal period in a significant year, and believes he has never been in a better position to press his claims for further caps at senior level.

"It was only two years ago that I was on loan at Sunderland wondering whether I still had a career at Boro," he said last night. "But football can change very quickly. Some of the young lads who are trying to make it here shouldn't be discouraged if things don't go smoothly from the start."

Downing, with a little help from the defender Abel Xavier, ensured things did not go smoothly for Bolton Wanderers from start to finish. Fresh from creating three goals inside the opening 23 minutes, the outstanding graduate of Middlesbrough's renowned academy conjured a quite spectacular fourth two minutes before half-time.

His manager, Gareth Southgate, said: "That was Stewart at his best. The performance will have done him the world of good. Sometimes Stewart does not realise just how good he is. If he's in any doubt then all he needs to do is watch a video of that match. He was a huge threat all afternoon and I'm delighted for him. He is such an asset to Middlesbrough but he sometimes lacks self-confidence."

The Teessiders' fifth-minute opener owed as much to good fortune as it did to Downing's pinpoint delivery as the Bolton midfielder, Gary Speed, inadvertently nudged the ball beyond his own goalkeeper in attempting to avoid aXavier header which ricocheted off the upright. However, Middlesbrough's Portuguese defender swiftly headed home a second and after 23 minutes Mark Viduka added a third.

Downing, the architect of his team's first three goals, added the spectacular fourth before half-time when he struck a 25-yard shot beyond the despairing Jussi Jaaskelainen. That Kevin Nolan pulled a goal back for Bolton in the 25th minute was utterly irrelevant and, when the Senegalese forward El Hadji Diouf was dismissed for foul and abusive language midway through the second half, Sam Allardyce and his team were broken.

"It is silly that he persisted in talking to Alan Wiley," said the Wanderers manager of Diouf's conversation with the referee. "It is stupid and there's no need for it. We were out of the game by then and dead and buried and the last thing we wanted was a suspension for another key player."

Viduka scored Middlesbrough's fifth six minutes before time and Allardyce added: "We couldn't cope with their attacking players performing at the top of their game. To sum up I would say Viduka, Downing and Yakubu [Aiyegbeni] were the difference. We didn't want Downing, in particular, to produce the quality that he did."

Consistency now holds the key to Downing's international career but this definitive performance proved he is a special talent who must be nurtured, not chastised, in the future.

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