TGG Podcast #11: Stewart Downing - Managing the twilight of my career
Written by Simon Austin — February 18, 2020
“I always remember a physio at Boro telling me ‘with the knee injury you’ve had, you probably won’t get beyond 30, 31,” says Stewart Downing.
On Saturday, the 35-year-old played his 32nd game of the season for Blackburn Rovers and was many people’s man-of-the-match in a 2-0 win over Charlton. This is the midfielder's 19th season in professional football and he's been a pivotal player for an unfancied side that's now on the fringes of the play-offs.
Speaking on the Training Ground Guru podcast, Downing said careful management of his training and playing schedules by manager Tony Mowbray and his staff had been key.
“I can train every day but to get the max on a Saturday, the manager has to manage me properly, which he does,” said the midfielder, who suffered a serious knee injury in 2005 when he was playing for Middlesbrough.
“He says ‘I don’t need you doing 7km every day and 13km on a Saturday, because you’ll probably only play another year’. He looks after me long-term. I’m fit, I can do the running, but I’ve played a lot more games and have more wear and tear than the younger lads.
“The manager knows when to full tilt people and when to hold them back."
Downing, who joined Blackburn on a one-year contract in the summer, outlined what a typical week would look like for him.
"Monday I’ll usually be indoors," he says. "I’m not chilling out and having a cigar, I’m on a bike, swimming, doing an upper body circuit in the gym, doing different loading.
“I do the loading differently, so it’s not on my knee, but I’m still getting the work in. Tuesdays I like to be out because it’s a HIT (high intensity) day and I need to get that in my legs.
"Wednesday is usually a rest day. Thursday will depend on what the manager wants to do. He might say, ‘listen, you can stay in again, do your gym work’. In a typical week I'll do three gym sessions - upper body, lower body and a power session.
"If the manager's working on tactics on the Thursday and needs me to be out there on the pitch then I’ll do that and probably leave the session late on. Friday it’ll be set pieces, some sharp stuff for half an hour, and then we’ll do video analysis - how the opposition play, what they’re doing.
"After that we will go out and actually do it, against the lads who aren’t playing, or the Under-23s will come across and try and replicate what the opposition might do on a Saturday.”
“You get some managers who say 'it’s my way or the highway, if you can’t do it you’re out'," Downing says. "Our manager says you have to have a good relationship with the players because we’re the ones going out to do a job for him.”
When Downing arrived at Ewood Park in in the summer, on a one-year contract, Mowbray told him “you’re coming in as an older player - you have to help the younger players and help me".
“We have a good senior group in the dressing room and he lets us get on with it and manage the younger players and he manages the whole group,” Downing explains.
Mowbray likes to encourages player empowerment. Because the players are the ones out on the pitch, and because you can't always predict what will happen in a game, he believes they should be capable of making decisions and changes in the heat of the moment.
“We played Forest in January (a game they lost 3-2) and in the middle of the game we were getting overrun in the middle and flipped it around,” he says. “I went as a number 10, Corry Evans went back one.
“We got back into the game. The manager said, ‘I could see on the pitch you changed that’. He’s not going to spit his dummy out and say ‘why did you change that, I didn’t tell you to’. He says, ‘if you see things in the game and think it helps, then do it’.
“Ultimately his tactics will be the bigger picture, but if we see a little tweak we can do it, so long as we’re comfortable’. He’s not one of the ‘it’s my way or you’re off’ managers, he’s open and he trusts us.”
Downing says Mowbray’s relationship-building style of leadership works well in a squad containing several recent Academy graduates.
“You get managers who scream and shout, but it’s about working out the player. He (Mowbray) can shout and lose his rag, but I think he’s got a good way about him.
"He’s got a lot of young players and shouting probably doesn’t help. They need encouragement, they need guidance.”
And as with the playing staff, Downing says there’s a nice mix of youth and experience on the coaching team as well.
Mark Venus, who has worked alongside Mowbray throughout his career, is his assistant at Blackburn, while 41-year-old Damien Johnsen was promoted from the Under-23s in the summer to become development and technical coach.
“You have the manager and Veno with a lot of experience,” Downing says. “Damien is coming into a senior environment for the first time and is not much older than me, but he’s a great fella, knows his stuff. His knowledge is frightening and the players like him.
“He demands that the intensity is high in training, which players like anyway.”