Stewart Downing
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Stewart Downing says Southgate told him England’s biggest strength last week, tips Foden and Sterling for WC starting spots, and backs Gerrard for Liverpool job

| 25.03.2022

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. 

In part one he backed Manchester City over Liverpool for the Premier League title and talked initiation songs, DJing in Ibiza and Adama Traore’s Middlesbrough fines.

Now in part two Downing discusses the current England team, going to the World Cup in 2006 and the chances of former team-mate Steven Gerrard becoming Liverpool manager one day.

Southgate told me last week what England’s biggest strength was…

I actually spoke with Gareth [Southgate] last week on a coaching course. I’ve got to say, I don’t know how it was for him, but I just felt like we were back at Middlesbrough… that’s his biggest strength; his ability to make people feel comfortable. He’s a great man-manager.

I’d happily say I was surprised at first to see him get the England job so soon, and maybe that was more down to circumstance, but the Gareth I knew at Boro was always going to get the job one day. You know, when he took over at Boro, people might have asked questions, but it just worked; he fitted in so well, and that’s a credit to him.

One of the things he recently told me about this squad – something he said he’s not had before – is that it’s so flexible. That’s our biggest strength. It helps you so much when you go into these tournaments if you can set up in numerous ways; it makes you so much more difficult to play against.

Gareth Southgate

He said to me “I can play four at the back, three at the back, five in midfield, two sitting…” he went on, he was coming out with all of these ideas and plans. That was the biggest plus I got from him. He’s so impressed by the number of options he’s got, and the number of different players all at a top, top level.

You know, we’re bringing the likes of Jack Grealish off the bench… that’s some luxury there. If you’re chasing a game, you can bring a Declan Rice or a Jordan Henderson off in favour of a Grealish, or a Phil Foden, and you need that versatility, that blend and that unpredictability.

Who should start up front for England?

I’d hate to have to pick a starting line-up, if I’m being honest with you, because you’re leaving out some unbelievable players. You look and – Harry Kane aside – you’ve then got Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish… the list goes on. How do you choose between them?

Kane is in their, obviously. Then Raheem had a really good tournament last summer, so he’s probably going to be out on the left. And then you’ve got four or five players going for that one spot out on the right.

For me, I think Foden just about gets it. He’s just so difficult to mark, he knows where he needs to be to get involved with the action and he’s an absolute nightmare to defend against.

That being said, I’m a massive Grealish fan as well – so what do you do?! Play them all! Drop a defender and play them all! On a serious note, the big thing is that there is such a great level of strength in depth within that squad now, and it’s so great to see.

There was definite tension between England players in ’06

I look back at a couple of the England camps I was in and I think that towards the back end of my international career, those rivalries between different clubs were fizzling out – but you could definitely sense that tension in 2006 between the Chelsea lads, Liverpool and Man United.

There wasn’t much in the way of interaction between those lads. It’s a strange one, to be honest, because I was only a young lad at Boro at the time. I could bounce around the squad and just sort of mix with whoever I wanted. Maybe that helped me to settle in, but I did sense a bit of a shift in those dynamics by the time I signed for Liverpool!

I know it was a horrible way to exit the World Cup in 2006, but for me, I was a 21-year-old lad who was just soaking it all up. I look back now and think of it as a massive tournament which we had a real chance of winning. Because I was so young, and I think a bit naïve, I was never going to really be in the starting line-up, so my job was just to get closer to the first team.

England, 2006 World Cup, football

The lads were under so much pressure, though, when you look back now. The relationship between players, fans and the media was nowhere near as strong as it is now – so any performance that didn’t live up to expectations was going to get jumped on, and you could feel that pressure in the camp.

We had some unbelievable players; it’s amazing how we never managed to win anything, really. When Wayne Rooney first burst onto the scene, he just stepped onto the pitch like a street footballer and nothing could faze him. But as he got older he started to realise the pressure that came with playing for England.

I think we were very unlucky with his sending off in ’06. We’d have probably gone on to win that tournament. I think we definitely go on to win in 2004 if he doesn’t get injured.  I didn’t really realise until years later just how much pressure some of those senior players were under at those tournaments.

Aftermath of 2006 World Cup exit

I think we came back from Germany the night after we lost to Portugal on penalties. The worst thing about it was the flight home; we were coming into Manchester and ended up having to divert to Liverpool because of turbulence. It was horrible. All I wanted to do was get home safe, never mind what the press were going to say! I just wanted to get out of that plane.

For me, I tried not to think about 2006 all that much. I was a young kid, and so getting in the squad itself was a real achievement. For the lads like David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, they knew what was coming because they’d had it before.

I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been if we’d have had that relationship with the media that the players have today. We played in fear of knowing what was to come, rather than concentrating on playing the game.

2008 was another big one that does stay with me. How we didn’t make it to the tournament with this squad, I’ll never know. I mean, I was thinking about us winning the tournament, let alone not even qualifying for it. That was a major low for me.

Steven Gerrard for Liverpool

Steven Gerrard and Aston Villa all happened really quickly, I remember seeing the rumours and – if I’m being honest – I didn’t really see it happening at that time of the season. I dropped him a text when he signed for the club, not that he needed to tell me how big a club it was he was joining.

The big thing for him is that he’s going to get the backing of the people who have brought him in. He knows Christian Purslow well through his time at Liverpool.

This season is about getting into that top half, I think, and then next year they can really look at kicking on under Stevie. I think they’ll bring in six or seven names in the summer, and then it’s game on for them – but, of course, a lot of pressure comes with that.

It’s a really good move for Stevie, though. The club has the potential to be in the top six and there’s a platform in place there for him to build something special.

Steven Gerrard

There are always going to be rumours flying round about Stevie and the Liverpool job. But Stevie’s not stupid; it’s all about timing. Is he ready to take that job yet? You know, if Jurgen Klopp stays until 2024, that’s another couple of years under Stevie’s belt. But then there are a couple of things which might stop him from taking the job.

First of all, we don’t necessarily know what the owners want. Maybe they have someone else in mind as Klopp’s replacement. And secondly, do you want to be the person who goes in and replaces Klopp, after what he’s done for the club?

It’s all about timing, and what works best for all parties. If you look at that Liverpool squad now, there’s Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and the more recent signings up front. You know, I think he’d be pretty stupid to turn it down if he was offered the job – but what if Klopp leaves and then a handful of players follow suit?

All of a sudden there’s a bit of a rebuild job up there. It’s all about the timing, and whether he feels ready for the job. Long term, you’d expect Stevie to be given the chance, though.

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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.