Stewart Downing: 10 key coaches in my career
Written by Simon Austin — February 10, 2020
IN the latest edition of the Training Ground Guru Podcast, Stewart Downing talked about 10 key coaches in his career - from his earliest days at Marton Juniors through to Liverpool, England and now Blackburn Rovers.
1. Stewart Downing Snr
Stewart Downing: My dad didn’t drive, but rain, hail or snow he would bike me to play football. Everyone would say, ‘here they are, on the bike, the two Stewies.’ It was a running joke, but I loved it. He loved football so he would take me anywhere.
I don’t think people look at the influence of parents enough. They just look at players and think, ‘he was good, so he made it as a pro’. It all starts with parents.
Dad never criticised me, he always encouraged me; he never shouted, he just let me play. You see some young kids who probably don’t get that support and don’t make it because of what happened in their younger life.
You see some parents screaming from the touchline during games and you think, ‘these kids need encouragement, they need confidence’.
It does my head in when I hear parents asking ‘how many goals did you score?’ The long term thing is are they going to be good players, are they going to make it? It’s about their long-term development.
I was always shy and smaller than the other players, but my dad said: ‘It doesn’t matter how little you are. If you have the ability you can go past them. If they’re big, they can’t turn as quick as you can.’
When I was younger I was all left foot, but I remember the coach at Marton Juniors saying: ‘For the last half hour you can’t use your left foot’. I used to think: ‘Why can’t I use my left foot? I’m left footed.’ But it helped me. If you’re two-footed you can play different positions, you can go both ways instead of the defender knowing where you’re going.
2. Dave Parnaby (Middlesbrough Academy)
Dave was really, really good. You’ve seen the production line of players he brought through. There were 10, 15 players who went on to have very good pro careers from my time at the Academy alone. It probably saved the club millions.
Dave was demanding, but he never really shouted and he would focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. He told me: ‘I’m not expecting you to go round tackling people, but I expect you to make it hard for people to pass forward’.
And he gave me confidence by telling me ‘I think you can get in the first team’. The young players loved playing for him and it was enjoyable going into work.
Mark Proctor, an ex pro, was alongside him and they worked well in tandem. The two of them were just really, really good.
3. Mick McCarthy (Sunderland, 2003)
I went on loan to Sunderland under Mick in the Championship and those three months toughened me up.
I look back at pictures from that time and I was still a boy, the kit was swinging off me, but I was ready to play and I wanted to go there.
The lads at Sunderland were washing their own kit, things I wasn’t used to, because I’d come from the reserves at Boro where it was all done for us.
Like Dave, Mick was demanding, but he gave me so much confidence to just go and play. I scored a couple of goals early on and suddenly thought, ‘maybe I am good enough’. You don’t really know until you leave the reserves and play.
I think young players from Premier League Academies should go out on loan to League One, League Two, because then they’ll realise how good they have it. Mick was unbelievable for me, I learnt so much in that short time.
4. Steve McClaren (Middlesbrough, 2003 to 2006)
I got called back to Middlesbrough and didn’t really want to go, because I was enjoying playing at Sunderland. But Gaizka Mendieta got a season-ending cruciate injury and Steve McClaren put Bolo Zenden in the middle and me on the left.
I was lucky, because I was probably the only young player going into a team full of experience - Gareth Southgate, Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Ugo Ehiogu, Mark Schwarzer.
I was a 19-year-old lad and it was just a great learning curve for me, watching these players and seeing their attitudes to training and playing. If Mendieta had stayed fit, I would have had a job getting into the team, but I got a bit of luck and grabbed it with both hands.
We went on an amazing run over the next couple of seasons, winning the League Cup, then finishing seventh and getting to the Uefa Cup final. You look back and think ‘wow’, but the town probably took it for granted at the time.
5. Gareth Southgate (Middlesbrough, 2006 to 2009)
I look back at the transition Gareth made and am trying to put myself in his shoes, because he was 35, just like I am now. He finished playing and went straight into the manager’s job at Boro.
His ideas and coaching were really good. I could have left the club a couple of times but stayed under him for two or three years. I really enjoyed playing for Gareth, he was really good, but some of his signings just didn’t work out and didn’t give him enough, if I’m brutally honest.
I felt for him, because you put your trust in people and they didn’t give him 100%. You can’t carry passengers and we got found out a little bit in the Premier League. He lost his job but I think it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him.
It looks like he’s done an unbelievable job with England. He’s a good man and a good manager to play for.
6. Martin O’Neill (Aston Villa, 2009/10)
I got injured in the penultimate game of the season for Boro, broke my foot, and thought ‘I’m here for another year, I’m knackered’, but Martin O’Neill bought me for Villa.
I think they’d finished sixth the year before, so I knew I had a job on my hands to get in the team. I did my medical on crutches, which is unusual, to say the least, but Martin said, ‘you’ll be fine, you’ll get fit and I’ll talk to the chairman about the long-term plan’.
I worked the hardest I’ve ever worked for six months to get in the team.
Martin’s other staff - John Robertson and Wally (Steve Walford) - took training, but his eyes were everywhere. People might think, ‘he didn’t see that’, but he saw everything.
His man-management was brilliant.
He might hardly speak to you during the week, but come game day he was alive.
He’d be in the dressing room and make people feel 10 feet tall.
‘Name a better winger in the league,’ he’d say to me. The same with the defenders, ‘I bought you because you’re the best defender in the Premier League.’ He made people feel unbelievable. You wanted to play for him and do well for him.
We were flying - Cup finals and everything - but then Martin left after a year which, for me, was devastating. I still see him now and again and we have a good chat, he’s a good fella.
7. Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool, 2011/12)
It was a dream to play for the team my dad had supported and to play for Kenny Dalglish.
Kenny could be big time, because he’s an absolute legend, but there are no airs and graces with him at all. He’s just a good fella with a dry sense of humour.
I realised the change in expectations straight away after the move. I’d come from Villa, where if we finished sixth it was a great season, to Liverpool, where sixth was a disaster.
You come with a big price tag to a big club and you know you’re going to be under scrutiny.
Kenny was great, he'd just back you to the hilt, but we could have played better for him. The team just didn’t click. A lot of new players came in and it doesn’t matter where you are, it’ll take time when that’s the case.
I was disappointed when Kenny left. To spend that money, I felt he should have been given time. We got to two Cup finals (2012 League Cup and FA Cup) and I thought the next season we would have got better.
I still speak to him and exchange the odd text. He’s just a good guy.
8. Brendan Rodgers (Liverpool, 2012/13)
The second year at Liverpool with Brendan was strange really. I didn’t get the feeling at the start that he wanted me, maybe because I was a Kenny signing.
There was one point when he questioned our commitment, me, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique, which was strange, because I’d been in his office two days before that and nothing got said.
I was under pressure already, the £20m signing, so I didn’t need more in the press. My commitment has never been questioned by any manager. I said: Iif you’ve got something to say you should say it to my face.'
I thought, ‘he’s not wanting me’, but I worked hard, got in the team and we got on after that. At the end of the season he told me he wanted to stay, but then the club accepted an offer from West Ham for me.
I spoke to Big Sam and he said ‘obviously the manager wants you to go Stew, otherwise the team wouldn’t have accepted the offer’. It would have helped if they’d done it in a better way.
If he’d just said ‘it’s time for you to go, I want new players in,’ it would have been ok. Brendan was a young manager learning his way, but I prefer a straight-talking, face-to-face conversation.
That’s why I liked playing for Kenny, Martin and Big Sam, because they were straight-talking men. Just be honest with players.
9. Sam Allardyce (West Ham, 2013 to 2015)
I played for Big Sam and people said he was 'old school'. But he was the first manager I’d seen who was bang up-to-date on sports science - and I played for the so-called new school and they weren’t.
I think it’s just perception. It’s all about getting the best out of your players. It doesn’t matter if it’s old school or new school. In fact I think a bit of old school’s good, because you’ve got players earning big salaries and they might need that little different motivation.
Sam certainly had that balance of when to come down hard on somebody and when to put his arm round them.
10. Tony Mowbray (Blackburn Rovers, 2019 to present)
Tony asked if I could come round for a chat with him. We live in the same village, which helps. We talked for two, three hours, about everything - family, football, how he saw me fitting into the team, even where I’d live.
Managers often don’t care about your family but Tony cared about everything. I came away feeling really good and confident about it.
He’s someone you want to play for. He’s a good man-manager, a good fella. My brother-in-law (Jonathon Woodgate) has played for him and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him.
You get some managers who say: ’It’s my way or the highway. If you can’t do it you’re out.' But our manager says he needs to have a good relationship with his players because we’re the ones going out to do a job for him.
I’ve got a one-year contract. I’d like to stay on and have been open about that, but if I can’t we’ll shake hands and I’ll look back and say I had an unbelievable season that was everything I hoped for and more.
I’m really glad I’ve played for someone like Tony, because I’ve always been fond of him, a Middlesbrough man.