If David Beckham turned to the Galaxy after never quite recovering from a disappointing World Cup, then his erstwhile international team-mate Stewart Downing is reaching for the stars.
The men from Real Madrid and Middlesbrough endured common criticism after last summer's trip to Germany. In the case of Beckham, a difficult tournament hastened the demise of one of Europe's leading playmakers after almost a decade of upward mobility. Downing, however, used a painful experience to his advantage and it is the determined 22-year-old from Teesside who is preparing for take-off.
There will be few players who dominate a Premiership fixture as Middlesbrough's left-sided midfielder did for 45 minutes against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday. Downing's delivery was back to its destructive best and his second goal of the season was an exquisite strike, which flew past the hapless goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen two minutes before half-time.
Gareth Southgate's irresistible team were already 3-1 ahead by the time their rapier-like playmaker added a memorable fourth. It was all a far cry from the dreadfully dour football Middlesbrough's supporters had come to expect during the first half of the season and it offered further proof that entertainment is back on the agenda at the Riverside Stadium. Southgate's players have scored 16 times in 2007 - two fewer goals than they managed in 22 matches before Christmas.
"The transformation is probably down to the confidence in the team, getting the big lads up front fit and having a settled team as well," said Downing, whose return to form is a vital factor in the revival. "From day one the manager said we should be getting forward more.
"We attack as a front four and we've been due a big win. It's great to be given a licence to attack and put a team under pressure. The confidence is there and we're playing with a nice flow."
Middlesbrough ruthlessly exposed the limitations of a Wanderers team supposedly chasing Champions' League football and if Bolton's manager, Sam Allardyce, was bemoaning his failure to complete the signing of the Birmingham midfielder David Dunn, then this match saw his misery multiplied.
Quite apart from a dire defensive display, the dismissal of the perennial troublemaker El Hadji Diouf was enough cause for dismay. Allardyce deserved more from the surly Senegalese after resurrecting the spitting forward's Premiership career than the show of foul-mouthed petulance which brought a 66th-minute dismissal. The referee, Alan Wiley, had ignored Diouf's expletives earlier in the game but when he was told to "fuck off" in front of the Middlesbrough bench, a red card was the only reasonable course of action.
"We're without another key player for two games now and that really puts us under pressure," Allardyce said. "It was stupid of him to keep talking to the referee."
Goals: Speed og (6) 1-0; Xavier (10) 2-0; Viduka (23) 3-0; Nolan (25) 3-1; Downing (43) 4-1; Viduka (54) 5-1.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Taylor, Pogatetz, Woodgate, Xavier; Cattermole (Morrison, 88), Boateng, Arca, Downing (Euell, 88); Viduka, Yakubu (Christie, 82). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Davies.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-2-3): Jaaskelainen; Hunt (Gardner, 46), Faye, Meite, Haim; Campo; Nolan, Speed (Andranik, 59); Davies (Vaz Te, 77), Diouf, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Stelios.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Middlesbrough Boateng; Bolton Campo, Nolan, Davies.
Sent off: Diouf (66).
Man of the match: Downing.
Attendance: 24,614.Reuse content