Stewart Downing moves to Blackburn Rovers with the simple desire to 'just play football'

The former England, Middlesbrough and Liverpool midfielder has signed a one-year contract with the Ewood Park club

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18:  Stewart Downing of Middlesbrough takes on John Brayford of Burton Albion during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Middlesbrough and Burton Albion at Riverside Stadium on December 18, 2018 in Middlesbrough, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Perhaps it was the lament of an ageing footballer. “I saw Fernando Torres retired a couple of weeks ago,” Stewart Downing said. “He is only the same age as me.”

They are two men connected by events at Anfield in 2011, Liverpool’s January sale of Torres for a then British record of £50 million (Dh229m) helping fund Downing’s summer arrival for £20m. “He was an unbelievable player,” Downing reflected. He may not have touched the same heights, but he has outlasted a contemporary.

So, 17 years since his debut, 13 years since he played in a European final and the World Cup in the same summer, Downing has become one of English football’s unheralded survivors. He has signed a one-year contract with Blackburn Rovers, extending a career that has incorporated 660 club appearances and brought 35 international caps.

As a teenager, he was the youngest player in either squad in the 2004 League Cup final, when Middlesbrough beat Bolton Wanderers. He turns 35 this month and is the oldest at Rovers.

Of England’s 2006 World Cup party, only he, Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch, Scott Carson, Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott are still going. “I used to look at older players and think, I am younger than them and they will be finished and now I have got old and the shoe is on the other foot,” Downing said.

He looks as lean as he did in his prime – “you can be as fit in your thirties as you are in your twenties,” he insisted – and his left foot remains as classy as ever. In a sense, though, he is postponing the inevitable.

“If I finish, I don’t really know what I would do,” he said. “I would like to stay in football but there is no job where I would get as much enjoyment.” The reason for his longevity, he said, was simple: “Just a desire to play football. From a kid, it is all I ever wanted to do.”

And yet age has brought a clarity of thought. Downing left his hometown club Middlesbrough for a second time this summer. There was interest from Sheffield Wednesday and Rangers, managed by his former teammate Steven Gerrard. The deciding factor was easy. “With the experience I had in the past couple of years, the biggest thing was to enjoy it,” he said.

Which, sadly, he was not doing at his hometown club. Downing returned to Boro in 2015 via Aston Villa, Liverpool and West Ham United. The last two seasons brought pragmatic managers, in Garry Monk and Tony Pulis, who scarcely suited his more expressive style of play.

He was sidelined for much of winter, not starting a league match in January, February or March, when Boro suddenly remembered a clause that would trigger a new contract if he began half of their 46 matches.

“I had to play 50 per cent of the games and did 22 and then got pulled in by the manager to say he couldn’t play me,” Downing revealed. “The difficult part was training all week knowing I couldn’t start. It didn’t matter how well I trained or how I did in games coming off the bench.”

That desire to play led him to then sign a deal that, in effect, removed the clause. A mild-mannered figure reflected: “I am glad I did it but it was something I shouldn’t have had to do.”

Another sign of his commitment came in his decision to relocate from Teesside this month. Instead, he has a Middlesbrough reunion with Boro’s former captain and manager, the purist Tony Mowbray. “The way the manager plays here suits my game,” Downing added. And playing, for as long as he can, suits Downing.