Liverpool have spent the vast majority of this season trying to convince their fans that change is good.
A new manager has brought in a new way of playing, a way which new players are attempting to master to wildly varying degrees of success. Youth has been on top of the agenda―sometimes not always with positive connotations (Guardian).
As a result it means that the mistakes of the previous regime have been highlighted. Or, more pertinently, simply not given the chance to prove their sometimes staggeringly expensive worth.
Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam were two of those mistakes, with neither now at the club to try and put previous perceptions to bed and create a longer Liverpool legacy.
There was a time that many would have wanted to see Jose Enrique and Jordan Henderson follow them out of the door too, and while the transfer fee spent on the latter will still attract attention and criticism, a broad survey of Liverpool fans at the moment would find more on his side than against him. Enrique too. They are showing the desire to succeed, and fans respond to such efforts.
Which brings us to Stewart Downing.
Always destined to be the headline act of Liverpool’s summer 2011 signings whatever he and the club did last season, Downing’s 2011/12 unfortunately saw the winger revert to the meek, mild winger often seen in his early appearances in an England shirt―when unpopular manager Steve McClaren rushed his former Middlesbrough charge into the team before he was ready, thereby creating an almost career-defining bond between the pair which reflected badly on the player.
Instead of the Downing who impressed in scoring seven Premier League goals and create nine others for Aston Villa in 2010/11, Liverpool were getting the Downing who all too often frustrated and went hiding in matches. What’s worse was that they had paid £20million for him too.
Upon entering Anfield last summer there is no doubt that Brendan Rodgers would have seen Downing as a fascinating project, perhaps even the kind of project that―were it successful―could prove to be the making of a young manager in his first season with the world watching.
Rodgers’ tough love for Downing has included public criticism, an admittance that he could leave the club and a relocation to left-back. Somewhat paradoxically though, he has started 10 of the last 11 Premier League games.
He’s done okay in those matches too, scoring against Fulham, providing a goal for Steven Gerrard and registering further assists against QPR and Norwich―the latter with a simply sublime first time cross from which Daniel Sturridge couldn’t miss.
Doing ‘okay’ simply isn’t enough at a club like Liverpool of course, and there is a nagging belief that Downing is merely being kept around until the Reds can recruit a higher calibre of player to replace him―with Philippe Coutinho perhaps the first to fit the bill (Liverpool Echo).
Liverpool’s ad hoc appointment of sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters―well renowned in his field and a man highly praised for work he’s done with Great Britain cyclists Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy (Guardian)―has been seen by many as a chance for someone to finally get into Downing’s head and unlock the potential often visible in fits and starts, but as the squad continues to evolve and grow a new identity the winger might just have to accept that he’ll be on the fringes of it from time to time.
So, listening to Dr Peters, becoming that little bit braver on the ball, accepting that he will be at best a squad player, working on his left-back performances and providing an experienced head in a squad that frequently has rushes of blood will all be key if Downing wants to stay and prove his worth.
Unfortunately for him that worth is of course pretty vast given the outlay Liverpool paid for him 18 months ago, but after being burdened by that price tag surely it is now time for Downing to start to look at home in a red shirt.
The youngsters in the Reds’ squad are often talked about as ‘needing time’ to fulfil their potential.
Downing is 28, and so whilst we already know an awful lot about him it’s not too late to improve over time, and maybe even convince fans that a change isn’t necessary on this occasion.