In July of 2011, Liverpool consummated its pursuit of Stewart Downing by signing the England international away from Aston Villa for a transfer fee of £20 million. The deal was reached after Liverpool submitted what was thought to be their third bid for the winger’s services.
It is not difficult to understand why Liverpool put in for Downing; Liverpool had just that January signed Andy Carroll for £35 million from Newcastle and needed someone who could provide the giant front man service from the wings.
Downing, meanwhile, had established himself as a terrific wing player, adept at running at his man and crossing the ball with pinpoint accuracy from either wing. He cemented his place in the England lineup with early success at Middlesbrough, before forming a stellar wing partnership with Ashley Young at Villa.
Downing came to Liverpool with 36 goals in 313 appearances for club and country, but more impressively, with a reputation for creating chances for teammates with his lethal services into the box. It was understandable, then, that Liverpool saw him as the perfect weapon to partner with Andy Carroll.
Needless to say, that pairing has not flourished as hoped for, as Carroll has managed only a handful of goals in his year with Liverpool, while Downing only recently got off the mark but has yet to score in the Premier League.
In buying Downing for his particularly specialized skill set, Liverpool failed to properly evaluate his ability to integrate into the team outside of his ability to cross the ball. He was bought for the specific purpose of supplying Andy Carroll with crosses, when such a system was at odds with the offense being implemented by Dalglish.
Carroll was never to be the focus of the attack, not with his static play, dependent as it is on a steady supply of long balls into the box, a tactic that is anathema to the "pass and move" philosophy being emphasized by Dalglish.
Was there a proper appreciation of Downing's ability to move without the ball or to direct passes up the channels creating chances on the ground? What about his ability to run onto the end of diagonal passes from the middle, or to facilitate the quick, one-touch passing required by "pass and move."
A £20m player should either be singularly gifted at one skill as to dominate at his position, or sufficiently multi-talented as to contribute in a variety of ways that make the team better. Downing is neither player, and certainly should not have been bought at that price, if at all.
Now it appears that Liverpool were duped by Villa…sold a bill of goods, given a six-for-a-nine, sold a cat-in-bag, bought the farm…whichever cliché suits your fancy, the bottom line is that in their acquisition of Downing, Liverpool did not get what they thought they were getting.
According to media reports, members of the Liverpool hierarchy were sold on Downing after viewing the now infamous video of him kicking balls into trash cans on the training ground, a video which, it turns out, was faked. According to Liverpool chairman Tom Werner:
There was some footage of Stewart where he was, from 30 yards away, kicking a football into five different trash cans and it was brilliant. John and I said: 'Oh my God, this player is brilliant, we've got to figure out a way to make a deal with him.'
The admission is stunning in its naiveté if true, and one shudders to think that with such football minds in the fold such as Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli, that Liverpool would be so taken by the video.
Liverpool fans should be happy that Manchester City snapped up James Milner, and Manchester United, Ashley Young, before Werner saw their own faked videos, the ledger may have been stocked with even more overpriced talent at Anfield than presently exists.
It is damning enough that the video is fake, but even if it were the real item, it beggars belief that such stock would be put into training-ground trickery as to spring for Downing to the tune of £20m for a player who scored a grand total of seven goals in the Premier League last season, and none thus far this season.
The Liverpool brass denies the claim of course, with principal owner, John Henry stating:
I explained in that interview back in August we knew the footage had been doctored but I guess that detail doesn't really help stand up the story.
The amount of people involved and the work that goes into a signing a player is huge so the suggestion that we'd buy someone on the back of one doctored video is ridiculous.
Regardless the merits of the fake video story, it is beyond doubt that Downing has failed to impress at any price, let alone for the hefty price tag he commanded. The winger frequently looks lost for ideas as he meanders down the wings, and all too often resorts to cutting inside where defensive help awaits.
It may well be too early to write the book on Downing’s tenure at Liverpool, and indeed he has shown flashes of ability, such as his recent Carling Cup pairing with Carroll against Brighton. The promising moments have been few and far between, however, and fears that he may never pan out, to date, remain justified.