In fairness to the Villa man he did well to battle back to fitness from a serious foot injury and make an impressive 33 appearances in all competitions, despite his season not getting started until early November. Both past and present players extol the virtues of pre-season training for fitness and sharpness over the course of a long campaign and Downing was always likely to come up short in both given his late beginning. So perhaps it is not surprising that the former Middlesbrough midfielder misses out on a flight to South Africa with Fabio Capello’s squad. For the first time in over a decade England have options on the left-hand side, ironically in the shape of current Villa team-mate James Milner and former Middlesbrough colleague Adam Johnson. As a result, Downing joins fellow Villan Ashley Young on the outside looking in.
Form wise, it is fair to say that Downing has not set Villa Park alight since his £10m summer move. However it would be wrong to suggest he has been poor for Martin O’Neill’s men. Operating predominately on the left hand side of midfield, Downing often swapped flanks with Young and was comfortable on both. Unlike typical wingers, he is not born with blistering pace but makes up for it with good technique and quality delivery in open play and from set-pieces. The frustration with Downing, hinted at above, is that too often the simple pass is chosen over engaging the full-back and beating him on the outside. While he rarely wastes the ball, more drive and forcefulness in his play would surely make the world of difference. Three goals in all competitions is a poor return for an attacking player who has good striking ability with his left foot.
In spite of these misgivings, Downing at times has caught the eye of Capello and he is appeared in squads against France, USA, Trinidad & Tobago and most impressively against Germany in November 2008 when direct running and fine crossing gave a glimpse of the ability he possesses. Since then, Capello has stationed Vice-captain Steven Gerrard on the left flank and seems to have installed Milner as his deputy, with the Yorkshireman also adept in a number of positions. In addition, as Downing’s club form has failed to explode, his replacement at Boro and now City winger, Johnson, has produced some promising displays to force his way into international reckoning. While South Africa might come too soon for him, he at least has the opportunity to impress the boss at close quarters, unlike the Villa midfielder. Joe Cole too is a formidable opponent in that position.
At 25-years-of age Downing is in a similar situation to that of club mate Ashley Young. At the very least he too has future international tournaments to aim for, but like Young his game will have to kick on at a rapid rate of knots if he is to fulfill his underground potential and finally become that sure-fire hit.