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The Curious Staying Power of Stewart Downing

Having been the focal point of so much justified disillusionment and disdain, Stewart Downing has incrementally improved to the point where he is, at the very least, serviceable. How did we get here?

Alex Livesey

Let me begin with an admission. If anyone had suggested, even three months ago, that I would ever write anything resembling an affirmation of Stewart Downing as a footballer, the conversation would likely have had a violent end. So entrenched had I become in my disapproval of the England winger's continued presence in Liverpool teams, that there seemed to be no chance of redemption for him, in my eyes, at least.

Over the past few months, something has happened. Some bizarre alignment of the planets has resulted in Stewart Downing putting in 90 minute shifts in red that have not left me feeling murderous. Before some of you start calling the asylums, our number 19 has not suddenly become a player I particularly like - it's just that I've stopped self-harming when watching him play. Whisper it, but it seems as though Downing has become quite useful.

As last season unfolded, and the grace period afforded to all newbies by most right-thinking fans evaporated, Stewart Downing had emerged as one of, if not the only player to don a Liverbird that I, and many others, simply could not warm to. I've watched Sean Dundee, Jimmy Carter, Torben Piechnik, Jean Michel Ferri and Djimi Traore 'play' for Liverpool over the last 20 years.

Every one of those guys made my eyes bleed and my head almost implode with their monumental uselessness but at least each of them seemed to genuinely care, as they bumbled about the Anfield pitch with varying degrees of hilarity and ineptitude. You never doubted that they really wanted to play for Liverpool Football Club.

Downing's greatest sin, in my eyes, was his apparent lack of heart. Sure, he ticked the Harry Redknapp box by "running about", but I honestly can't recall a 50-50 he won in that whole season. Another thing that seemed completely absent in the flanker was what my compatriot, John Giles, calls "moral courage".

Think for a moment of how many times you saw Downing carry the ball competently into a fine position only to cross without looking. If you've played at all you know what that is. It's a cop-out, a percentage ball that says, "Hey, I did my job. Where were you guys?"

Still, it galled me to join the masses of knee-jerkers and phone-in whingers by lambasting the Middlesbrough native. After all, we 'old' guys like to maintain at least a facade of decorum and preserve a modicum of old-fashioned decency in supporting our team. Stewart Downing, however, broke me. His relentless ineffectiveness drove me to despair and worse, to articulate my displeasure here in LFC Offside Towers, a lot.

How very pleasant it has been, then, to witness the renaissance of this player in recent times. How surprising it is to see his efficient screening, his dogged tracking and his tidy link-up play. How confusingly delightful it has been to see his direct involvement in actual goals - and yet, I fear being overly effusive in my praise. Like Macduff, when Malcolm has toyed with him to test his fealty, I am wary. "Such welcome and unwelcome things all at once," insists Macbeth's nemesis, are "hard to reconcile."

This uptick in Downing's form is, however, undeniable. To see him, in Saturday's win against Wigan, commit a defender with a near post run, before dropping off and heading home Phillipe Coutinho's delightful cross, was to see a newly confident and efficacious performer. This version of Stewart Downing is, at worst, a valuable squad member.If Brendan Rodgers had to suffer the brickbats for his persistence with an underwhelming player, then he must take the credit when that stubborn persistence finally results in an improvement.

The problem that will arise is when Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez are all fit and in form. Even this newly effectual version of Downing is a poor and distant fifth on that list. What will happen then to the winger's brittle confidence? Will he, once more, retreat into himself and produce the type of infuriating fare that had many of us reaching for the larger tumbler to house our post-match tipple?

I have no doubt that many otherwise reasonable men and women out there will have no truck with this talk of a new Stewart Downing and I would not blame them. His fan-shushing was the last straw for some. For others, that straw was long gone. I choose to cautiously embrace his modest transformation, at least until the season's end, if for no other reason than the preservation of what's left of my mental health. Perhaps then, it might be best if we cordially separated.

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