'I think he was running the club' - Former Middlesbrough winger Stewart Downing reveals what it was like playing with ex-Lazio striker Alen Boksic and whether he took Boro's European adventure for granted
Things were different at Middlesbrough when Stewart Downing broke through into the first team under Steve McClaren.
Had it not been for the former Manchester United assistant manager, Downing may not have got his chance given the lavish signings being made on Teesside and the sometimes over reliance on senior players by predecessor Bryan Robson.
Downing would have to bide his time, and prove his worth, in the reserve ranks and out on loan before being given an opportunity.
And among those high profile signings was Croatian forward Alen Boksic who arrived from Lazio in 2000 for a fee of £2.5m - a substantial fee given the age of the striker, 30, when he arrived at the Riverside.
But Boksic would impress, scoring twice on his debut against Coventry City on his way to 13 goals in his inaugural Premier League season.
However, while the Croatian gripped Boro supporters on the field, Downing revealed the striker wasn’t always as committed on the training ground.
Speaking on the Undr The Cosh Podcast, the former Boro winger said: “I think he was running the club when I was there. He’d come down to training, do the warm-up, and if he didn’t like what he was seeing he’d just walk in.
“You’d look at it and think it’s a bit disrespectful but Steve McClaren managed him quite well. He took a bit of stick about not being able to handle the senior players but I look back and think sometimes he was just leaving them to it.
“You’d see [Paul] Ince and people like that fuming, but then we’d play on a Saturday and win 1-0 and he’d probably score the winner.
“You see it with Ferguson and the Cantona’s - them types of people - and I think he managed him quite well.
“If these players are winning you games you go with it. And generally, he was really good. He was some player.”
Downing went on to discuss the clubs rise in the early 2000’s - a memorable time on Teesside that would culminate with a trip to Eindhoven to compete in the UEFA Cup final against Spanish side Sevilla.
No Boro supporter will ever forget the historic Riverside comebacks against Basel in the quarter-final and Steaua in the semi-final - captured so wonderfully by radio commentator, the late, Alastair Brownlee.
Two year’s previous the Teessiders lifted the first trophy in their 128-year history in the League Cup final against Bolton Wanderers. It was a fine time to be associated with Middlesbrough Football Club.
“We were on the crest [of a wave] really,” admitted Downing.
“We were getting big players in - finishing seventh in the Premier League which is an unbelievable achievement.
“Getting to the final was unbelievable but we met a good team in Sevilla in the end, but those couple of years you look back and think ‘did we take it for granted’?
“We just thought it was the norm but I look back now and, where Middlesbrough are at now, I think would we ever get them days back?
“The ground was full, the town was booming, you could just sense the whole area was going with it. We had a couple of good years.”