Stewart Downing
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Stewart Downing backs City over Liverpool for title and talks initiation songs, DJing in Ibiza and Adama Traore’s Boro fines

| 23.03.2022

Former England winger Stewart Downing gave an exclusive interview to Ladbrokes at its launch of the 5-A-Side bet on England v Switzerland on Saturday. 

He discussed a wide range of topics from both his playing days and the current season, starting with the Premier League title race.

My heart says Liverpool, but I’m leaning towards Man City for the title

My heart would say Liverpool win the league this season, but I think Man City are still very much in the driving seat; they have to be favourites. I could actually see both teams going on and winning all of their remaining league games, apart from the one where they play against each other – so it could well come down to that massive fixture at the Etihad.

If you’re asking me for an out-and-out answer, I think I’d just lean towards Man City. This title race might be won by just a point – or three at an absolute maximum. It’s definitely going to go down to the wire.

Liverpool have done an amazing job to close the gap, especially when you consider not only how big it was, but also the fact that City haven’t played badly at all.

When you watch them in the games in which they’ve dropped points, it’s not like they’ve struggled to create chances, they’ve just been incredibly unlucky – and that’s why I’m prone to stick with City winning the league… it would be a different story if they were struggling through games but I don’t think they are.

Full credit to Liverpool, though. Remember the difference was 14 points once upon a time, and I know they had a couple of games in hand, but you’ve still got to win those matches.

Mo Salah, Luis Diaz, Premier League betting tips

I’m really surprised it’s only a two-horse race though, if I’m being honest. I know Man United finished in second place last year, but I never expected them to sustain a title challenge this time out.

As for Chelsea, though, I really thought they’d be up there. Not only were they heading into this season as Champions League winners, but they brought Romelu Lukaku back, and I thought he was the final piece of the jigsaw for them.

From then on, though, it’s not quite worked out for them; I’m not sure whether Lukaku was necessarily the manager’s signing, but I did expect them to be right up there in the title race.

Six or seven Man Utd players aren’t playing anywhere near their best

Recruitment is so important for Manchester United this summer; it’s massive. I really like Jadon Sancho; I thought he was a great signing, but for some reason he wasn’t getting a run of games earlier on this season.

I’m not sure what went on there, was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not happy with the way he was training or something? It was a bit of a strange one for the club to spend all of that money on the lad and then not play him.

I’m sure Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t part of their plans in the summer, and maybe it’s just that those Man City rumours scared them a little. When you bring in a player like Ronaldo, you’ve got to play to his strengths, and you build things around him.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Man Utd

I just think when you’re looking at recruitment, you should be bringing in players who suit your style. Different managers have different styles, and the way Ralf Rangnick wants to play just doesn’t suit these players. That’s all I can think of.

There are too many big players out of form right now. Harry Maguire gets a lot of stick, but he’s not the only one. There are six or seven players who aren’t playing anywhere near their best. When you look at the teams above them in the league, especially the top two, everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet in those sides; everyone is on board with the tactics.

Recruitment is massive for United this summer, but I don’t think the manager situation helps. I know a lot of people say he was the only man available, but this is Manchester United we’re talking about.

Antonio Conte was available at one point, why didn’t they go and get him? What about Mauricio Pochettino? You’re Manchester United; go and get the best man, not the only man. The whole thing just hasn’t been handled very well, I don’t think.

Initiation songs are horrendous… I’ve heard of players refusing to sign for clubs because of them

It’s always a big thing when you sign for a new club, so it’s important you’re stepping into the right dressing room.

When it came to leaving Aston Villa, if I’m being honest, I really enjoyed my time with the club. It’s a bit of a shame I didn’t get to spend more time playing for Martin O’Neill, and then as soon as I saw the likes of Ashley Young and James Milner leaving, I could sense it just felt like the right time to leave.

I knew Kenny Dalglish was interested in me and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to join a club as big as Liverpool.

Carra [Jamie Carragher] was probably the one person who helped me settle the most. He took me out for some food and showed me around the city. He helped me settle in while I was living in a hotel for the first couple of weeks. He took some time out, just an hour or two, to help me feel at home, and that meant a lot.

Jamie Carragher

Initiation songs are always horrendous, wherever you go. I did Fans by Kings of Leon in a bar in Edinburgh back when I signed for West Ham, and I did a bit of Penny Arcade when I joined Liverpool. I was just trying to get everyone involved because I was a bit nervous.

I’ve played for plenty of clubs in my career and I can confidently tell you 99% of footballers can’t sing. I’ll tell you who was unbelievable… she wasn’t a player, but Carra’s wife, Nicola. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, but we had a couples night out one year and she got up and sang Adele. We were all just like ‘wow’. She was ridiculous. The lads all got up and we were stinking, but she was unbelievable.

Honestly, some of them are so hard to watch. I’ve actually heard loads of rumours of lads not signing for clubs because they didn’t want to do those initiation songs. It’s mad, isn’t it? We’ve got no problem playing in front of 60,000 people, but singing in front of your team-mates is so daunting.

I think Adama Traore just liked paying fines… we had to stop taking his money after a certain point

One player comes to mind straight away when I think of the biggest culprit for club fines: Adama Traore… a great, great lad, but he had absolutely no sense of time.

He didn’t drive, and he lived right next to the training ground so he’d come to training on his little scooter, and he’d always be late. We’d all be travelling from 40 minutes or so away, he’s two minutes around the corner and he was always late.

One time he went home for an afternoon nap and we were leaving on the coach for a game later on in the day. Garry Monk just told the driver to leave him, because he wasn’t waking up!

He was a really good lad and we all tried to help him as much as we could – we’d just be saying “Adama, come on… just set your alarm on your phone”.

I think he just liked paying fines! He must’ve just liked paying them. In the end it got too out of hand; we decided between us we just couldn’t take the amounts of money from him that he was having to pay us in fines.

We couldn’t just keep fining him, it clearly wasn’t working, so we just had to literally drag him on the bus. He was a great lad, but he just had zero concept of time.

Footballer by day, DJing in Ibiza superclub by night…

I’ve always liked DJing, and I’ve been known to play a few sets during my time at Middlesbrough, but my biggest claim to fame on that front was far from Teesside…

I DJed in Eden, the nightclub in Ibiza once. No one will have known about it; it wasn’t like I was on the flyer or anything – it was just that some of my mates were playing there, and I knew the lad who was running the night. He asked me if I wanted to go on. I was like ‘not really, no’.

It was pretty full in there. He told me to just get up and have a go. Honestly it was proper nerve-wracking… I think people have seen me out and about DJing in a few bars here and there but that was a big one.

It’s more nerve-wracking than playing football, that’s for sure. If you’re on a football pitch and you do something wrong, you might get booed, but you’ve got 10 other players to hide behind, and you’ll get another chance to do something special straight away. With DJing, if you get something wrong and you’ve got thousands of people dancing, where do you hide? You’re completely on your own.

I don’t have a massive problem with Man United’s players going out and about… what else do you want them to do?

You’ve got to think, times change, don’t they? When I was playing as a youngster, we didn’t have to worry about social media if we were out and about. It was more a case of people writing letters in to the club to say we’d been spotted in this bar or that club – and then you’d probably just lie and say it wasn’t you. I’ve never had to do it myself, I always tried to pick the right times to go out and about.

I’m really into DJing, so I’ve been known to play a few sets here and there when I was up in Middlesbrough. But to be fair, the club were in a really good position at the time, playing in Europe and doing well in the league. We were going through a good spell.

No one really highlighted my DJing as a problem – it wasn’t like I was doing it every weekend. And then when you get older you start to settle down a bit more, you move to bigger clubs where you’re under bigger scrutiny. And then you get a wife and kids, and all of a sudden you’ve not got the time for DJing anyway!

I just think the players nowadays are going to be scrutinised for everything they do, so going out doesn’t help. Maybe the manager has got to have a word with them and tell them to keep their heads down for a couple of months. See the season out and go and do what you want in the summer.

I don’t really have a problem with it, though; they’ve got free time… what else are they going to do? I know what Gary [Neville] is like, though, I’ve played with him and he’s right, he probably did lock himself away after a bad result.

Gary’s great. He’s got an opinion that he thought was right, but people are different. It’s just the way the game is going. Maybe we’re just stuck in the old times a little bit but I don’t see a really big problem with it.

They’re not doing anything wrong, these lads. They’re just watching another sport; it’s not as if they’re out there steaming drunk, it all looked pretty laid back to me. What else do you want them to do? I don’t know.

Should Arsenal fans be worried about losing Saka? He’d get into any Premier League team

Bukayo Saka is another one who deserves a lot of credit. He’s so important for Arsenal, and he’s still so young. He’s got time to get even better; it’s frightening. The list of attacking options available to Gareth [Southgate] that you almost forget about the likes of Saka. It’s a good problem to have, though, for sure.

Saka has been amazing this season; you’ve got to think back to the situation he had in the summer, missing that decisive penalty. He hasn’t let it get to him, he’s dealt with the pressure, bounced back and let his football do the talking. Not only is he a good player already, but I think he’ll be phenomenal in years to come.

Would I worry about losing him if I was an Arsenal fan? He’d fit in to any club in the Premier League, that’s for sure. But, for him, he’s currently playing for a manager who trusts him and he can see a plan going forward.

You’ve got to think that if he went to somewhere like Man City, is he going to play every week? He might win more trophies but with Arsenal he’s at a club who are building and getting better with every game. You never know, in four or five years’ time, maybe they’ll become one of the top teams in the league again. They’ve certainly got the backing.

It’s a tremendous club with the best of facilities. For me, Saka is best off staying at Arsenal for the foreseeable future.

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Alex Apati

Alex has been with the Ladbrokes PR team since 2017 having previously worked for the news department. From sparring with Peter Fury to talking interviews on the Duke and Duchess' baby names, he's covered a range of sports and novelty events.

A frustrated West Brom fan who is no stranger to an oche, Alex is originally from Dudley, although he's worked hard to rid himself of the Black Country twang.