Ex-Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Liverpool winger Stewart Downing lifts the lid on England boss Gareth Southgate's time at the Riverside on the pitch and in the dugout
Former Middlesbrough winger Stewart Downing believes Gareth Southgate was the club’s best signing under the reign of Steve McClaren.
The current England manager arrived at the Riverside from Aston Villa for a fee of £6m in 2001, becoming McClaren's first signing as a manager having stepped down from his role at Manchester United.
And in an outspoken interview on the Undr The Cosh Podcast with hosts Jon Parkin and former Sunderland striker Chris Brown, Downing revealed at length about the defender’s influence in the Boro dressing room.
“People say you have a captain or a leader, we had seven or eight. And there was no more than Southgate at the top. He was the main man, he was fantastic,” said Downing.
“He was McClaren’s best signing I think. You had all these characters who were probably difficult to handle but he was the pinnacle of it because he controlled everyone.
“McClaren didn't even need to manage it because he did it. He just had a way about him, his demeanour, he could hold the room and had a presence.
“He led by how he played and you can’t come back at people who play like that week after week.”
Southgate’s arrival on Teesside converged with Downing’s rise into the Boro first team picture as a product of the club’s academy.
But it wasn’t until Downing enjoyed a successful two month loan spell with neighbours Sunderland in 2003 until he really became immersed in the Boro dressing room.
Downing’s return was met with an optimistic intrigue at the Riverside where he would flourish under McClaren becoming a key figure of the side who made it to the UEFA Cup final against Sevilla in 2006.
But it was in those primitive stages of his Boro career that Downing acknowledged Southgate’s impact.
Having burst onto the scene Downing suddenly found himself out of McClaren’s starting XI in favour of Dutchman Boudewijn Zenden, and were it not for Southgate’s words of wisdom he may not have forced his way back into the manager’s plans.
“Southgate ran past me in [in training] and put his arm around me and said ‘you deserve to play but he’s made a decision so get on with it, but prove to him next time he puts you on you deserve to be back in that XI again.’
“It was a small thing but he didn’t need to do that. My head had gone a little bit and he realised. He was just a class act with everything he did.”
He went on: “Big players were frightened of him. People think he’s soft because he’s well spoken - don’t believe in all that.
“He could dress people down and they didn't come back at him. He had that side to him which doesn’t surprise me why he’s handling big players now because of the respect for him.”
But while Southgate may be recognised as a big figure in the dugout nowadays given his efforts with the Three Lions since his appointment in 2016, it wasn’t always like that.
Following that heartbreak in Eindhoven, Southgate moved from player to manager at the Riverside in place of the outgoing McClaren.
All of a sudden, a defender with a wealth of experience in both the Premier League and in European competition was now a vastly inexperienced manager.
Teammates, who were also his friends, were now his players.
There could be no more mucking around on the training ground or bravado in the dressing room. It was a difficult transition, but Downing suggests his demise only came as a result of poor recruitment - players he believes Southgate didn’t want to sign.
“[The] first couple of years he was very good,” said Downing.
“He was two years younger than me now when he took that job - it must have been a hell of a job. No badges, no experience at all, but we had a decent style of play, we attacked teams.
“The third year recruitment wasn't great, I'll be honest. We brought [Afonso] Alves in, who was one of the best finishers I’ve seen in training, but I don’t know if he got nervous in games and I’m not really sure if Gareth wanted him.
“We brought Mido in and I’m not really sure if Mido was the type of character that Gareth liked. He was overweight, then he’d lose a lot of weight, then he’d be overweight again.
“I just look at Gareth and the character that he is, and what he’s about, and I'm 100 per cent sure they’re not his signings.
“He might come out and say they were to try and protect them but I just know for a fact he wants good pros, good people and good players and they didn't do it for him.”
Southgate’s tenure at the Riverside would come to an end in 2009 nine following relegation to the Championship - despite the club being fourth in the table and bidding for immediate return to the Premier League at the time of his dismissal.
Boro chairman Steve Gibson described the decision to relieve Southgate of his duties as ‘the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in football,’ which is something Downing sympathises with.
“Over the years at Middlesbrough we’ve always had a solid team and we always had good strikers; Viduka, Hasselbaink, Yakubu who’d get us 20 each and we’d finish in a good position.
“If your lads then stop scoring there’s only one way you’re going to go. So he must have been pulling his hair out.”