After he arrived as Liverpool's fourth most expensive signing ever, Stewart Downing ended his first year at Anfield with the ignominious record of no goals or assists in league play. It left fans grumbling, and few—likely not even Downing himself—will have entered the current season imagining the England winger remained in the club's long-term plans.
Now, after a strong showing in the second half of the season that has pushed his totals to three goals and three assists in the league, he's beginning to look the fixture in the starting eleven most assumed he would be on his arrival. Not all may be quick to forget the futility of his first season—or that he shushed supporters after finally breaking his league goal drought after more than a calendar year—but he's no longer the outcast he once was.
And though he knows he will have to continue to impress the manager if he's to hang on to his newfound starter's minutes, he has also revealed that his stronger play so far in 2013 has seen Brendan Rodgers tell him that he is in fact a part of his long-term plans.
"All I need to do is look at the bench to remind myself that I have to keep performing well," said Downing in an interview with Liverpool’s official magazine. "There is real competition for places, especially since Daniel [Sturridge] and [Philippe] Coutinho arrived in January. You have lads like Raheem waiting for a chance too. It means if you’re not playing well you’ll be hauled off.
"I’m sure the manager will also be looking to add to the squad in the summer. He’s told me I’m part of his long-term plans, which was great to hear. Now I have to ensure that continues to be the case."
Both Coutinho and—before he picked up an injury—Sturridge showed signs of being able to make an instant impact at their new club. Before a lingering shoulder issue hurt his game, Joe Allen also appeared quick to adjust. Two of the club's other biggest signings, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez, also convinced fans from day one. Downing, though, believes some players just take longer to settle.
"Some lads hit it off straight away at a new club," he added. "Others don’t. In my case it took longer than I obviously wanted. I’m glad it’s clicked now and I have the chance to continue playing for a big club. I’ve always believed I could do well here. I’ve done that over the last few months and want to continue doing so for the remainder of this season and the years to come.
"Brendan challenged me to get goals and I’ve chipped in with a few. In the league I struggled in that area last season. I think that was the case for the whole team. They have been coming of late—I even scored a header at Wigan. It’s nice to get different types of goals [but Rodgers has] told me all that matters is playing well."
No matter one's views on Downing and that he appears set to remain at the club for at least one more season now, it's hard to argue the club isn't better served by their £20M playing well than they would be had he continued to struggle, and if he is to be in Rodgers' long-term plans then long may it continue.