Getting back to form

England looks almost certain to be at EURO 2016. The challenge for Stewart Downing is to ensure he is too, writes Simon Peach.

Stewart Downing called his time playing makeshift left-back for Liverpool the lowest moment of a career which is in the midst of a resurgence thanks to another positional change.

Much was expected of the England winger when Kenny Dalglish forked out GBP20 million to take him to Anfield in the summer of 2011. However, Downing struggled to find his feet on Merseyside and under Dalglish’s successor, Brendan Rodgers, he was converted to a full-back.

It was a role the 30-year-old slotted into just so he could get back playing regularly, but it is not a time the midfielder, now with West Ham, remembers fondly.

Asked if that was as bad as it got, Downing said: “Yeah, I think so. Obviously I was out of the team for me just to play, just to get back in the team, was a big thing.

“But at left-back it was obviously difficult. It was a chance to get back in the team for me, so I obviously had to go along with it. I wasn’t happy playing at left-back. It’s not my natural position.

“I knew from then that it was time for me to move. I was getting signals — other players were coming in and I am getting used at left-back rather than winger.

“I think you know when the writing is on the wall for you at a club, so the West Ham move came at a good time for me. It was a chance for me to go and play football regularly and play under a manager who wanted me to play every week.”

Downing is full of praise for West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, who he highlighted as not only being the key to his move to east London but his recent, and somewhat surprising, resurgence.

The Hammers’ 3-1 home defeat to Southampton in late August saw Allardyce move to a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Downing playing a more central, attacking role.

It is a central position he reveals the West Ham boss always had earmarked for him and one he has thrived in, resulting in an England recall having not played for his country since Roy Hodgson’s first match at the helm against Norway in May 2012.

“I played in Roy’s first game, went to the EUROs and didn’t play at all,” Downing said. “After that, I wasn’t picked so I thought he had wanted to go in a new direction, a new type of player. Maybe the younger players you’ve seen come into the squad a lot.

“I've got no problems with that. Obviously it is a difficult decision for him to make, to pick 23 players. I understand that and my form probably at that time wasn’t good enough to be in.

“I’m honest enough to say that but it just goes to show, if you keep playing well and your team is doing well, you’ve always got a chance of playing well.”

Downing admitted he was a “little bit nervous” as he returned to the England squad for the recent matches against Slovenia and Scotland, but the overriding emotion was one of excitement.

He believes there is some “great talent” in the England set-up and has been impressed by the way they have responded to the World Cup embarrassment.

“They’ve got a lot of young lads under pressure and they’ve dealt with it really well,” Downing said. “It’s going to take time. Roy has to build the team here and it will take maybe a couple of campaigns to get going, but I think Roy is doing a good job.”

Although Downing was an unused substitute for the EURO 2016 qualifier against Slovenia, he played the first-half of the 3-1 win in Scotland which made it six victories out of six since England finished bottom of Group D in Brazil.

Downing sensed people were expecting them to lose in Glasgow after the Scots beat the Republic of Ireland in a European qualifier but Wayne Rooney’s double helped to ensure England ended a disappointing year on a high. Downing said: “That’s the way to respond to the disappointment of the World Cup — to win and play well along the way. I think we have done that.

“I think a lot of people had us down to lose the game after the win Scotland had. They are a difficult team to play against, they are well organised and work hard and put us under a lot of pressure.

“They made it difficult for us in the first 15-20 minutes but I thought we dealt with it really well and I thought the quality came through with the goals. It was a decent performance from us and a good win.” England look almost certain to be at EURO 2016. The challenge for Downing is to ensure he is too.

© PA Sport