STEWART DOWNING knows better than anyone how quickly fortunes can change in football.
Two months ago the Liverpool FC winger appeared destined for the Anfield exit door. Boss Brendan Rodgers had informed him that he was surplus to requirements and could leave during the January transfer window. There was no place for the £20million man in Rodgers’ blueprint for the future but Downing refused to accept his fate.
Instead the 28-year-old knuckled down and vowed to force his way back into Rodgers’ plans. That mission has been accomplished in style.
“I just needed that chance and luckily enough I got that in the weeks after that conversation with the manager,” he said.
“I had a situation where I could have left, but I didn’t want to leave, and the only way to stay was to get into the team and do well.
“That’s football for you. I’m happy with how it’s going at the minute, but whether that changes in the summer I don’t know. The only thing I can do now is play well until then.
“If I play well, it makes it harder for him to leave me out or let me go.”
Downing netted the first goal of Rodgers’ reign away to Gomel in the Europa League qualifier back in August and was in the side for the chastening 3-0 defeat at West Brom on the opening day of the Premier League season.
But he quickly fell out of favour and didn’t start another league game for three months. Raheem Sterling, Suso, Fabio Borini and Oussama Assaidi were all picked ahead of him.
“I started the season well and got a goal in the first game, but I didn’t really play after that,” he said.
“It was strange not playing regularly. At Middlesbrough I played, and when I went to Aston Villa I was injured at the start but once I was back fit I was always in the team.
“I’ve always played until I came here. It was difficult, it was something I wasn’t used to.
“But it’s about how you react in that situation. I just thought I needed a chance to play as the system the manager was playing suited me.
“I had to fill in at left-back for a while, which I hadn’t done before. But to play in my proper position higher up the field, whether it’s on the right or the left, I think it’s gone quite well since I was put in there. I’m back in the team now and hopefully it will stay that way.”
Downing admits he was in a state of shock after being told by Rodgers he could move but insists he appreciated the Northern Irishman’s honesty.
If the boss’ words were designed to fire Downing up then they certainly had the desired effect.
“It was a bolt from the blue,” he said. “I was disappointed as it looked like my chance had gone. The team was doing okay and I wasn’t even getting on the bench at times.
“I’d not played so I didn’t see that I had done a lot wrong. There was disappointment that I hadn’t had a chance to prove to him I could play in that system, but things changed quite quickly after that.
“You have your differences but we get along fine. You get some managers who pat you on the back and the next minute you’re out of the door. The good thing about Brendan is you know where you stand.
“You play well you’re in the team, if you don’t you’re out of the door. It’s as simple as that. That’s the way I like to be managed. I’ve played for some managers who are not like that at all. They’ll tell you one thing and it’s the other.
“Maybe he said what he did to gee me up. But I think he looks at me and thinks it has worked because some players have left and I’m playing. Managers work in different ways and if he gets the best out of players, it’s the right way.”
Since starting the victory away to West Ham in December, Downing has been ever present in the Premier League. He ended his 17-month wait for a league goal for the club in the 4-0 rout of Fulham and has continued to impress – playing with a confidence Reds fans hadn’t previously seen since his arrival from Aston Villa.
But Downing knows he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. The signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho have increased Rodgers’ attacking options and standards must be maintained if he’s going to continue to hold down a place in the side.
“I knew this was probably my last chance here,” he said. “The manager was looking at bringing players in, he missed out on a couple (in the summer) who could play in my position and that helped me get a chance. He strengthened again in January with people who can play in my position, so the only thing I can do is if I keep playing well so he can’t leave me out. That’s how I see it.
“Every time I play is a chance to prove him wrong and to show him I am worthy of a place in the team. That’s my attitude going into games at the minute.
“The manager has shown in recent weeks that if you don’t perform, you won’t be playing. I have to do well in every game.
“He’ll strengthen again in the summer, but competition for places is good. You can see it has brought the best out of some players here, including myself.
“I’m not one of those people who wants to be on the move every season to another club. When you look back on your career, you want to have been playing for a club like Liverpool for a long time. Last season was a struggle for me here. As a team we were so good in the cups but bad in the league.
“I couldn’t see where it was going wrong and it was very frustrating at times thinking ‘this is not really working’.
“This season things have changed. I’m enjoying playing every week. I don’t want to be sat on the bench or in the stand, I’d rather go and play somewhere else.
“I’m 29 in the summer and I’ve got two more years left on my contract here so I’d like to see that out if possible.”