Middlesbrough FC Chairman Steve Gibson has paid a heartfelt tribute to Stewart Downing amid speculation that the Boro winger could be set to leave the club.
Downing has spent the Summer on the verge of leaving Boro for pastures new but his ongoing commitment to all things Teesside have been recognised with a Teesside Hero award.
And Gibson believes the former England star fully deserves the recognition of his long-term commitment and dedication to an array of local charities, community groups and sports clubs.
Gibson said: “Throughout the time I’ve known Stewart Downing he has always been a passionate Boro lad, committed to the club and to his hometown.
“Beyond his abilities and achievements on the pitch, it’s heartening to know that he has shown his passion and dedication to the area by giving up his own personal time to help local charities and those less fortunate.
“From everything I know about Stewart, that’s typical of him and I congratulate him on his award.
“He is definitely a Teesside Hero.”
Born in Middlesbrough’s Pallister Park estate, Downing has made more than 300 appearances during two spells with his hometown club during a 17-year playing career.
His achievements have made him a hero to thousands of Boro fans but his less heralded community work has now been recognised by charitable movement Teesside Philanthropic Foundation, whose patrons include both Middlesbrough FC and Gibson’s company Bulkhaul.
“I do believe in giving something back whenever you can,” said Downing, who recently celebrated his 33rd birthday. “I was born on Teesside, this is where I come from and I’m proud to call myself a Teessider.
“I enjoyed being away and playing for other clubs – it was a great experience – but I always said I’d come back, which is what I did when I had the chance.
“No matter what happens over the next few days and weeks, I see myself staying here once my playing days are over. I recently bought a new house here, I’ve got a young daughter and another one on the way, and I’m part of a close family who all live on Teesside.
“I think as a local lad you do have a responsibility to go out and support the community if you have the chance. My Mam and dad always taught me to do my bit and it’s something I’ve always been happy to do.”
Downing received his award in a surprise presentation at Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground in front of a number of team-mates and club staff.
Alisdair Beveridge of local firm The Build Directory presented the trophy on behalf of Teesside Philanthropic Foundation, while the former England player also received £1,000 to donate to a local worthy cause. He asked for the money to be donated to the club’s charity, the MFC Foundation.
“I was caught by surprise by the presentation,” he smiled. “When they announced it was for services to the community I thought it was going to be for George Friend, so I was surprised but pleased to receive it.”
MFC Foundation’s Diane O’Connell, who nominated Downing for the award, said: “On countless occasions Stewart has given up his own spare time to attend a wide array of community and charity events, presentations and talks.
“He never seeks publicity for this unheralded work – he just does it because he knows the impact he can have in terms of winning local worthy causes important publicity and thrilling young fans with his presence.”
She said worthy causes he had also supported included the MFC Foundation, the Boro’s own Study Support Centre, the club’s annual Golden Ticket Christmas party for deserving children and a number of Show Racism the Red Card events.
Downing said he most proud to have supported his former primary school in Pallister Park, local hospices such as Zoe’s Place and “anything that helps our local steelworkers”.
He also raised more than £15,000 for the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle in memory of his much loved little sister Vicky, who died from a rare form of stomach cancer 20 years ago, aged just four. This followed up a fundraising dinner he fronted in 2008 at the Tall Trees Hotel when thousands of pounds were raised in Vicky’s name.
He was recently able to direct another £5,000 to the hospital, courtesy of the Premier League, after joining a special group to achieve 400 appearances in English football’s top division.