In recent weeks, the need to give young players like Sebastian Coates and Jonjo Shelvey a chance to impress as Liverpool's prospects in the league have faded has become a frequent talking point. Some have even suggested the likes of Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson, and even Raheem Sterling should be given significant playing time, willing to trade a place or two in the final standings for the promise of a brighter future.
On the whole, it's an argument that makes a lot of sense, especially when the players that have started for most of the season are the ones who have left the club closer to Aston Villa in 15th than to Tottenham in fourth with eight games remaining. However, there is at least one senior players who has underwhelmed so far but who will, fitness permitting, start in every remaining game. That player is Stewart Downing.
Along with Jose Enrique and Jordan Henderson, Downing has appeared in 29 of the 30 league games to date, while when it comes to total minutes only Enrique and Charlie Adam are ahead of him among outfield players. Despite this he's yet to record a goal or assist in league play, and at times he still seems a poor fit for the pass and move football most assumed would be the preferred approach for Kenny Dalglish given his previous time in charge of the club and what was seen after he replaced Roy Hodgson to end the 2010-11 season. None of that matters, however, and Downing must be considered a lock to play in every league and FA Cup match from now until the end of the season.
Saying the club should play a young talent like Raheem Sterling—or, conversely, a veteran with a better scoring record like Maxi Rodriguez—is easy, but the reality faced by Kenny Dalglish and the coaching staff is that Stewart Downing cost £20M and now, one way or the other and with time running out, the club has to do something with him. After years of penny pinching and trading up in the transfer marker, last summer Liverpool's new owners loosened the purse-strings for what seemed the first time in ages. Being willing to spend, though, doesn't mean they'll be willing to simply write off Downing as a £20M mistake.
Stewart Downing was Dalglish and Damien Comolli's most expensive signing of the summer, and he was a signing they were able to fully scout and target well ahead of time. He wasn't a rush buy or a panic purchase or based on scouting reports left behind by past regimes. He was a player that Liverpool's football men took their time to consider; a player they built their summer strategy around. He was the man they made their number one target.
That means that Dalglish, Steve Clarke, and the rest of the coaching staff are now all but stuck: They have no choice but to figure out a way to turn Downing into something resembling an effective winger or wide attacker. And they need to do it now. If they can manage it, it gives them the choice of keeping Downing at the club as a worthwhile contributor for the coming seasons or of finding a suitor willing to purchase him for something not too far off what they paid for him last summer.
If they can't, the facts will stand as capitulation and few will see Downing as worth anything near what the club paid for him. If he ends the season as he has played most of it, then relying on him to be a major contributor in future seasons would be difficult to view as anything but foolhardy while finding another club willing to pay a decent price for him would be next to impossible. John Henry and the owners might have a hard time accepting that for simple financial reasons, but more than that it may be something that Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli can't afford to do for the sake of more than just the bottom line.
The importance of Downing for both Dalglish and Comolli becomes even more pressing when his case is sat next to that of Jordan Henderson, a promising but expensive prospect who seems no more developed than he did in the season's first games. Also worth noting has been the imbalance inflicted on midfield by Charlie Adam throughout much of the season. Put together and despite a handful of less expensive success stories, at present the £44M trio represent a harsh condemnation of the Buy British transfer policy the manager and director of football made a cornerstone of their efforts to rebuild a side that didn't seem broken.
Jordan Henderson will continue to be given more time by many who cite his age and the promising flashes of one-touch football he brings. Charlie Adam, meanwhile, has been removed from the conversation entirely through unfortunate circumstances. Which in the end leaves a quiet, unassuming, £20M winger who in the past has wilted when the pressure has been at its highest to come through for the men who bought him.
Some of the younger players will play—some of them must play. But Stewart Downing will play, too, and no argument about what he or those who might play in his place might bring to the side will make an ounce of difference to it. Because put simply, he has to play every game. He has to at least show signs that he can become the £20M player Comolli and Dalglish thought they were buying.
Whether he does may well play a large role in their job security come May. At the very least it will help determine how much money the two men are given—either by the owners or through sales—to conduct business in the summer.