Stewart Downing’s underwhelming stay at Liverpool at least ends with a glimmer of hope; moving to West Ham should put him in an environment more conducive to rediscovering the sort of form that eluded him at Anfield.
Nevertheless, as reported by the Telegraph, being sold for £6 million (subject to a medical) just two years after commanding a £20m fee is depreciation to rival that of the least-admired Eastern European five-door.
It may seem harsh to compare Downing to a Skoda, but during his time as a Red the winger provided a similar amount of excitement.
Such a poor return on their initial outlay—Downing managed just three goals and five assists in two full Premier League campaigns—suggests getting £6m for the 29-year-old is actually reasonable business for Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers. But that does not mean West Ham have been fleeced, as it is a deal that could also prove astute for Sam Allardyce, over time.
For all his faults as a player, Downing’s inability to thrive on Merseyside was not down to his shortcomings alone. Instability was rife at the club for much of his spell, with Downing as much a casualty of that as a cause.
When he arrived, he was the latest addition from director of football Damien Comolli, working under advisement from then-manager Kenny Dalglish. Unfortunately, as time would soon tell, neither man really knew what they were doing.
Dalglish guided Liverpool out of the mire after Roy Hodgson’s ill-fated tenure but proved unable to take the team to the next level when given the reins permanently, while Comolli’s transfer nous proved not to be quite as advertised.
Downing has now joined the illustrious company of fellow Comolli signings Andy Carroll (already at West Ham) and Charlie Adam (now of Stoke City) in departing Liverpool within two years of their initial arrival. On the three, Liverpool lost a ‘mere’ £37.5m—writing off £14m for Downing, £20m for Carroll and £3.5m for Adam.
That remarkably inept investment means even a £60m fee for Luis Suarez (one of the few Comolli signings Liverpool do not want to offload) this summer would only offset the cost of that forgettable triumvirate.
So much for the fanfare with which Downing’s signing was greeted.
"We are absolutely delighted - he is a big, big signing for us,” Comolli told Liverpool’s official website at the time of Downing’s arrival. “He is more than a winger, he can do a lot of things. He can link up with Luis Suarez by coming in, he can play on the right and on the left.
We look thoroughly into data and statistics before signing players and we really think we are bringing a big, big asset into our team. Maybe his talent is a little bit undervalued in English football, but we know what we are getting—and we are getting a very, very good, efficient footballer.”
Efficient is one word for it.
Downing would go through his entire first league campaign at Liverpool without producing a goal or an assist (famously hitting the post on the final day of the season), despite appearing in 36 games. The next campaign, working under Brendan Rodgers, Downing improved to three goals and five assists—despite seeming a somewhat awkward fit for Rodgers’ preferred style.
Rodgers took an initial dislike to Downing—singling him out, along with Jose Enrique, with public criticism of his bravery and hunger just weeks after taking over as manager—but within six months was praising his efforts, tipping him for an England recall (one Downing would duly receive).
Nevertheless, it is perhaps a general unsuitability to Rodgers’ ideal system that has seen Downing sold rather than get another season to try and finally impress.
Rodgers has seemingly always preferred his wide players (or secondary forwards, as the man himself may term them) to be technically-precise short-range passers that come in from the flanks, as Coutinho showed in the second half of last season.
This is something Downing's de-facto replacement, £6.8m summer buy Luis Alberto, will doubtless be asked to complement from now on; Downing’s strength has always been going outside and sending in crosses.
He learned to do more under Rodgers’ guidance, but a leopard does not change his spots so easily. At West Ham, he will be asked to go back to what he does best in order to provide for Andy Carroll, something he should find comfortable.
While circumstances did not help him, Downing is not blameless for his failure at Liverpool.
He always appeared somewhat subdued by the scrutiny and expectations involved when playing for a big club, while the size of his transfer fee seemed to leave him ill at ease from the start. Once the poor performances started, and fans began to see him as a poster boy for a failed regime, he was always fighting an uphill battle.
That he managed to earn his spurs under Rodgers, despite the Northern Irishman’s initial scepticism, is a credit to him. He will likely take that experience with him and become a valuable creative player for the Hammers this season. His new club are a side with a style more attuned to his own, and one where he may even be able to carry his international ambitions to a World Cup ticket.
But regardless of what comes next, Downing's inability to fully rise to the demands of playing for a club of the size of Liverpool will perhaps be the lasting legacy of his career.