Stewart Downing reveals misleading UEFA Cup final dossier that caught him by surprise

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Stewart Downing has looked back with laughter on the pre-match 2006 UEFA Cup final dossier that told him Dani Alves lacked pace and was beatable one-v-one. Speaking to fellow former professionals Joe Cole and Steve Sidwell on the All to Play For Podcast, the ex-Middlesbrough winger has lifted the lid on the misleading report that made him believe he was in for an easy night against the then 23-year-old Sevilla right back.

It was, of course, before Alves became world renowned for the rampaging runs and lung-busting performances that helped him win three Champions League finals with Barcelona and 124 caps for Brazil (and still counting). But, nevertheless, Downing still reckons the scouting information he received ahead of the 4-0 defeat in Eindhoven must have been compiled by somebody a little worse for wear.

Alves went on to provide the cross for Luis Fabiano to head in a 27th-minute opening goal for the La Liga outfit, who added further efforts from Enzo Maresca (two) and Freddie Kanoute as the Boro’s thrilling European odyssey ended in a comprehensive final defeat under Steve McClaren. Offering his memories of the night, a then 21-year-old Downing recalled: “I was the only young lad really in that team of experienced players and it was great being on the crest of that UEFA Cup run when we beat so many great sides but we met our match in the final.

“Dani Alves was not unknown, but it was before he went to Barcelona and won everything. Kanoute and (Javier) Saviola also played.

“Steve McClaren gave us dossiers on the players we were up against and somebody had done a report on Dani Alves the game before, but I do not know who did it. I think he must have had a couple of beers, because he’s gone , ‘Not the quickest and can be beaten one v one’ so I was buzzing and thinking happy days.

“But the first couple of minutes I’ve gone down the line and he’s put his arm across me and he was as strong as hell and, then, I thought I can’t outpace him because he’s quite quick as well. Him and Jesus Navas played down that flank that night, so you can imagine the pace and power of them.

“It was an eye-opener and I just thought this is a different level. Alves was unbelievable.

“I think he whipped the ball in early doors for the first goal. He was an amazing player.”

Downing, who made his first-team debut for Boro at the age of 17, was also in awe of some of his team-mates at the Riverside during those formative years, including the South American legend who, like so many others on Teesside at the time, he had grown up worshiping. Gradually, though, nights out in Yarm with one seasoned pro, in particular, helped him feel that he belonged in such exalted company.

“It was a bit daunting going into the dressing room with all those players,” Downing confessed. “I was a bit in awe of them, especially Juninho, because I’d been a ball-boy and watched him growing up.

“But, once you’ve met Ray Parlor, and people like that, you’re alright. Ray took me under his wing a little bit.

“He took me into Yarm, where we had a couple of nights out and we went to the races a few times.”

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Downing shared a dressing room with Juninho during the Brazilian’s third and final spell with Boro from 2002 to 2004. But the midfield magician only managed 41 league outings during those two seasons before leaving for Celtic and Downing believes it was probably not McClaren’s choice to bring him back to the Riverside.

“Juninho was a great lad who always had a smile on his face,” the 35-capped, ex-England international said. “There was no ego about him.

“He came to Middlesbrough three times when he could have gone to any of the top clubs in the country but he loved it and all the fans loved him. For me, growing up, he was the man.

“But, when Steve signed him, I do not know if he really wanted him. I think it was more to get the fans on side because he never really played him that much and, towards the end, he got annoyed that he wasn “‘t playing and you could see he was frustrated. He’d also lost that bit of pace but he was an amazing player.”

Despite whatever differences there were between the manager and Juninho, though, Downing credits McClaren with ushering a new era of 21st-century professionalism into the club, adding: “He was a fantastic coach who brought my game on a lot.

“As a kid who was an out-and-out winger, you just think stay wide and get the ball and cross it, but he taught me a lot tactically about what to do when you’re out of possession. He was a bit ahead of his time, I felt, because we had come from Bryan Robson who, with no disrespect, had old school ways. People said Steve might have struggled with his man-management of older players but I did not see that. “

Nor did Downing perceive the difficulties that his former team-mate Gareth Southgate has since confessed to following his transition from first-team captain to McClaren’s replacement in the dugout, arguing that the current England boss seemed a natural choice for the job.

“I think it was harder for him, than it was for us as players,” the Middlesbrough-born, 37-year-old reasoned. “I was young at the time and we were quite close even though he was a senior player.

“He was the leader of the dressing room and sort of McClaren’s manager of it. He kept everyone in place.

“It seemed like a natural thing for him but when I speak to him now, he tells me he went in with no philosophy or tactics and was just going in blind. It must have been tough because he was 35 and it was a big , big job for him, but I thought he was class.

“We were quite attacking, whereas now he’s gone for the wing-back formation with England a lot and maybe Steve Holland has had a big influence on him.”

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